good philosophical essay

How to Write a Philosophy Essay: Ultimate Guide

good philosophical essay

What Is a Philosophy Essay: Definition

Philosophical writing isn't your typical assignment. Its aim isn't to provide an overview of professional philosophers' works and say whether you agree with them.

Philosophy demands becoming a philosopher for the time of writing, thinking analytically and critically of ideas, pondering the Big Questions, and asking 'Why?'. That's why it requires time and energy, as well as a lot of thinking on your part.

But what is philosophy essay, exactly? If you're tasked with writing one, you'll have to select a thesis in the philosophical domain and argue for or against it. Then, you can support your thesis with other professional philosophers' works. But it has to contain your own philosophical contribution, too. (This is only one definition of philosophy essay, of course.)

What's a Good Philosophy Paper Outline?

Before you start writing your first line, you should make a philosophy essay outline. Think of it as a plan for your philosophy paper that briefly describes each paragraph's point.

As for how to write a philosophy essay outline, here are a few tips for you:

  • Start with your thesis. What will you be arguing for or against?
  • Read what philosophical theory has to say and note sources for your possible arguments and counterarguments.
  • Decide on the definitions of core concepts to include precise philosophical meanings in your essay.
  • After careful and extended reflection, organize your ideas following the structure below.

How To Structure a Philosophy Paper?

Like any other essay, a philosophy paper consists of an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. Sticking to this traditional philosophy essay structure will help you avoid unnecessary stress.

Here's your mini-guide on how to structure a philosophy essay:

  • Introduction - Clarify the question you will be answering in your philosophy paper. State your thesis – i.e., the answer you'll be arguing for. Explain general philosophical terms if needed.
  • Main body - Start with providing arguments for your stance and refute all the objections for each of them. Then, describe other possible answers and their reasoning – and counter the main arguments in their support.
  • Conclusion - Sum up all possible answers to the questions and reiterate why yours is the most viable one.

What's an Appropriate Philosophy Essay Length?

In our experience, 2,000 to 2,500 words are enough to cover the topic in-depth without compromising the quality of the writing.

However, see whether you have an assigned word limit before getting started. If it's shorter or longer than we recommend, stick to that word limit in writing your essay on philosophy.

What Format Should You Use for a Philosophy Paper?

As a service we can attest that most students use the APA guidelines as their philosophy essay format. However, your school has the final say in what format you should stick to.

Sometimes, you can be asked to use a different college philosophy essay format, like MLA or Chicago. But if you're the one to choose the guidelines and don't know which one would be a good philosophy argumentative essay format, let's break down the most popular ones.

APA, MLA, and Chicago share some characteristics:

  • Font: Time New Roman, 12 pt
  • Line spacing: double
  • Margins: 1" (left and right)
  • Page number: in the header

But here's how they differ:

  • A title page required
  • Sources list: 'References' page
  • No title page required
  • Sources list: 'Works cited' page
  • Sources list: 'Bibliography' page
  • Footnotes and endnotes are required for citations

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Guideline on How to Write a Philosophy Essay

If you still don't feel that confident about writing a philosophy paper, don't worry. Philosophical questions, by definition, have more than one interpretation. That's what makes them so challenging to write about.

To help you out in your philosophical writing journey, we've prepared this list of seven tips on how to write a philosophy essay.

guide philosophy essay

  • Read Your Sources Thoughtfully

Whether your recommended reading includes Dante's Divine Comedy or Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism Is a Humanism , approach your sources with curiosity and analytical thinking. Don't just mindlessly consume those texts. Instead, keep asking yourself questions while you're reading them, such as:

  • What concepts and questions does the author address?
  • What's the meaning behind key ideas and metaphors in the text?
  • What does the author use as a convincing argument?
  • Are there any strange or obscure distinctions?

As for which sources you should turn to, that all depends on your central question; philosophy topics for essay are diverse and sometimes opposed. So, you'll have to do your fair share of research.

  • Brainstorm & Organize Your Ideas

As you're reading those texts, jot down what comes to your mind. It can be a great quote you've stumbled upon, an idea for an argument, or your thoughtful, critical responses to certain opinions.

Then, sort through and organize all of those notes into an outline for your essay in philosophy. Make sure that it holds up in terms of logic. And ensure that your arguments and counterarguments are compelling, sensible, and convincing!

Now, you might be wondering how to write a philosophy essay introduction. Don't worry: there's an explanation right below!

  • Craft Your Introductory Paragraph

Think of your introduction as a road map preparing your reader for the journey your essay will take them on. This road map will describe the key 'stops' in your essay on philosophy: your topic, stance, and how you will argue for it – and refute other stances.

Don't hesitate to write it out as a step-by-step guide in the first or third person. For example: 'First, I will examine... Then, I will dispute... Finally, I will present….'

Need an example of an excellent introduction for a philosophy paper? You’ll be thrilled to know that we have one of our philosophy essay examples below!

  • Present Your Key Arguments & Reflections

Philosophy papers require a fair share of expository writing. This is where you demonstrate your understanding of the topic. So, make your exposition extensive and in-depth, and don't omit anything crucial.

As for the rest of the main body, we've covered how to structure a philosophy essay above. In short, you'll need to present supporting arguments, anticipate objections, and address them.

Use your own words when writing a philosophy paper; avoid pretentious or verbose language. Yes, some technical philosophical terms may be necessary. But the point of a philosophical paper is to present your stance – and develop your own philosophy – on the topic.

  • Don't Shy Away from Critical Ideas

Whenever you examine a philosophical theory or text, treat it with a fair share of criticism. This is what it means in practice – and how to structure a philosophy essay around your critical ideas:

  • Pinpoint what the theory's or idea's strengths are and every valid argument in its support;
  • See the scope of its application – perhaps, there are exceptions you can use as counterarguments;
  • Research someone else's criticism of the theory or idea. Develop your own criticism, as well;
  • Check if the philosopher already addressed those criticisms.
  • Ponder Possible Answers to Philosophical Questions

Writing an essay in philosophy is, in fact, easier for some students as the topic can always have multiple answers, and you can choose any of them. However, this can represent an even tougher challenge for other students. After all, you must consider those possible answers and address them in the paper.

How do you pinpoint those possible answers? Some of them can come to your mind when you brainstorm, especially if you'll be writing about one of the Big Questions. Others will reveal themselves when you start reading other philosophers' works.

Remember to have arguments for and against each possible answer and address objections.

  • Write a Powerful Conclusion

The conclusion is where you sum up your paper in just one paragraph. Reiterate your thesis and what arguments support it. But in philosophical writing, you can rarely have a clear, undebatable answer by the end of the paper. So, it's fine if your conclusion doesn't have a definitive verdict.

Here are a few tips on how to write a conclusion in a philosophy essay:

  • Don't introduce new arguments or evidence in conclusion – they belong in the main body;
  • Avoid overestimating or embellishing the level or value of your work;
  • Best conclusions are obvious and logical for those reading the paper – i.e.; a conclusion shouldn't be surprising at all;
  • Stay away from poorly explained claims in conclusion.

Philosophical Essay Example

Sometimes, it's better to see how it's done once than to read a thousand guides. We know that like no one else, so we have prepared this short philosophy essay example to show you what excellent philosophy papers look like:

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30 Philosophy Paper Topic Ideas

Philosophical writing concerns questions that don't have clear-cut yes or no answers. So, coming up with philosophy essay topics yourself can be tough.

Fret not: we've put together this list of 30 topics for philosophy papers on ethics and leadership for you. Feel free to use them as-is or tweak them!

15 Ethics Philosophy Essay Topics

Ethics deals with the question of right and wrong. So, if you're looking for philosophy essay topic ideas, ethics concerns some of the most interesting – and most mind-boggling – questions about human behavior.

Here are 15 compelling philosophy essay topics ethics has to offer you:

  • Is starting a war always morally wrong?
  • Would it be right to legalize euthanasia?
  • What is more important: the right to privacy or national security?
  • Is justice always fair?
  • Should nuclear weapons be banned?
  • Should teenagers be allowed to get plastic surgery?
  • Can cheating be justifiable?
  • Can AI algorithms behave ethically?
  • Should you abide by an unfair law?
  • Should voting become mandatory?
  • When can the right to freedom of speech be limited?
  • Is it the consumers' responsibility to fight climate by changing their buying decisions?
  • Is getting an abortion immoral?
  • Should we give animals their own rights?
  • Would human gene editing be immoral?

15 Leadership Philosophy Essay Topics

You're lucky if you're tasked with writing a leadership philosophy essay! We've compiled this list of 15 fresh, unconventional topics for you:

  • Is formal leadership necessary for ensuring the team's productivity?
  • Can authoritative leadership be ethical?
  • How do informal leaders take on this role?
  • Should there be affirmative action for formal leadership roles?
  • Is it possible to measure leadership?
  • What's the most important trait of a leader?
  • Is leadership an innate talent or an acquired skill?
  • Should leadership mean holding power over others?
  • Can a team function without a leader?
  • Should you follow a leader no matter what?
  • Is leader succession necessary? Why?
  • Are leadership and power the same?
  • Can we consider influencers contemporary leaders?
  • Why do people follow leaders?
  • What leadership style is the most ethical one?

7 Helpful Tips on Crafting a Philosophical Essay

Still, feeling stuck writing a philosophical essay? Here are seven more tips on crafting a good philosophy paper that can help you get unstuck:

  • Write the way you would talk about the subject. This will help you avoid overly convoluted, poor writing by using more straightforward prose with familiar words.
  • Don't focus on having a definitive answer by the end of your philosophical essay if your conclusion states that the question should be clarified further or that there are multiple answers.
  • You don't have to answer every question you raise in the paper. Even professional philosophers sometimes don't have all the answers.
  • Get straight to the point at the start of your paper. No need to warm up the reader – and inflate your word count.
  • Avoid using quotes. Instead, explain the author's point in your own words. But if you feel it's better to use a direct quote, explicitly state how it ties to your argument after it.
  • Write in the first person unless your assignment requires you to use the third person.
  • Start working on your philosophical essay well in advance. However much time you think you'll need, double it!

7 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Philosophy Writing

Sometimes, knowing what you shouldn't do in a philosophical essay is also helpful. Here are seven common mistakes that often bring down students' grades – but are easily avoidable:

guide philosophy essay

  • Appealing to authority – in philosophy, strive to develop your own stance instead;
  • Using convoluted sentences to appear more intelligent – instead, use simpler ways to deliver the same meaning;
  • Including interesting or important material without tying it to your point – every piece of evidence and every idea should explicitly support your arguments or counterarguments;
  • Inflating your word count without delivering value – in the writing process, it's crucial to 'kill your darlings';
  • Making poorly explained claims – explicitly present reasons for or against every claim you include;
  • Leaving core concepts undefined – explain what you mean by the words like 'free will' or 'existentialism' in the introduction;
  • Worrying about being wrong – no one can be proven wrong in philosophy!

Realize that your draft contains those mistakes, and it's too late to fix them? Then, let us help you out! Whether you ask us, 'Fix my paper' or ' Write my paper from scratch,' our philosophy writers will deliver an excellent paper worth the top grade. And no, it won't cost you a fortune!

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Philosophy essay writing guide


This guide is intended to give new students of philosophy some preliminary advice about writing philosophy essays at university. For many of you, writing a philosophy essay will be something of a new experience, and no doubt many of you will be a little unsure of what to expect, or of what is expected of you. Most of you will have written essays in school for English, History, etc. A philosophy essay is something a little different again. However, it is not an unfathomable, mysterious affair, nor one where anything goes.

Just what a philosophy essay is will depend a lot, as you'd expect, on just what philosophy is. Defining philosophy is always a more or less controversial business, but one way to think of what is done in university philosophy departments is to think of the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy. Virtually everyone "has a philosophy" in the sense that we have many basic beliefs about the world and ourselves and use certain key concepts to articulate those beliefs. Many of us initially come to thus "have a philosophy" (or elements of several philosophies) often only unconsciously, or by following "what's obvious" or "what everybody knows", or by adopting a view because it sounds exciting or is intellectually fashionable.

"Doing philosophy", on the other hand, is a self-conscious unearthing and rigorous examination of these basic beliefs and key concepts. In doing so, we try to clarify the meanings of those beliefs and concepts and to evaluate critically their rational grounds or justification. Thus, rather than having their heads in the clouds, philosophers are really more under the surface of our thinking, examining the structures that support - or fail to support - those who trust that they have their feet on the ground. Such examination may even help to develop new and firmer ground.

Doing philosophy, then, begins with asking questions about the fundamental ideas and concepts that inform our ways of looking at the world and ourselves, and proceeds by developing responses to those questions which seek to gain insight into those ideas and concepts - and part of that development consists in asking further questions, giving further responses, and so on. Human beings across the world have been engaged in this sort of dialogue of question and response for many centuries - even millennia - and a number of great traditions of reflection and inquiry have evolved that have fundamentally influenced the development of religion, art, science and politics in many cultures. The influence of philosophical thinking on Western civilization, in particular, can be traced back more than 2,500 years to the Ancient Greeks.

In philosophy, a good essay is one that, among other things, displays a good sense of this dialectic of question and response by asking insightful, probing questions, and providing reasoned, well-argued responses. This means that you should not rest content with merely an unintegrated collection of assertions, but should instead work at establishing logical relations between your thoughts. You are assessed not on the basis of what you believe, but on how well you argue for the position you adopt in your essay, and on how interesting and insightful your discussion of the issues is. That is to say, you are assessed on how well you do philosophy, not on what philosophy you end up having. Nonetheless, you ought to make sure that your essay's discussion is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.)

It is hoped that you enjoy the activity of essay writing. If you have chosen to study Arts, it is likely that you will have a particular interest in - even a passion for - ideas and the variety of forms and genres in which ideas are expressed and explored. The argumentative or discursive formal academic essay is one such form, and one which can be a pleasure to read and to write. Thus, the assessment that is set in philosophy courses is primarily an invitation to you to pursue what is already (or, hopefully, soon to be) your own interest in writing to explore ideas. However, your immediate goal in writing an academic philosophy essay ought not to be to write a personal testament, confession or polemic. Rather, you should primarily aim at articulating, clearly and relatively dispassionately, your philosophical thinking on the topic at hand. Nevertheless, the kind and degree of personal development one can gain from taking up the challenge to think and to write carefully, clearly and thoroughly is certainly something to be greatly valued.

This guide is intended to help you get started in the business of writing philosophy essays. As you practise your philosophical writing skills, you will develop your own technique, and learn what is appropriate in each particular case. So you may well come to "work around" many of these guidelines. Nonetheless, it is important that you pass through that which you seek to pass beyond.* In addition to your own writing, your reading of other philosophers will help you to develop your sense of what constitutes good philosophical writing. As you read, note the various styles and techniques that philosophical authors employ in their treatment of philosophical issues. Practice and studying good examples, then, are the most valuable ways to develop your essay writing skills.

This guide is, moreover, only one of many publications that introduce philosophy students to essay writing. Some others you may like to consult include:

  • A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
  • J. Feinberg and R. Shafer-Landau, Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers, 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • Z. Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003)
  • R. Solomon, "Writing Philosophy", Appendix to his The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • S. Gorovitz et al., Philosophical Analysis: An Introduction to its Language and Techniques, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1979)

Also, the websites of many philosophy departments in universities around Australia and the world contain downloadable essay writing guides or links to them.

*This phrase is adapted from Jacques Bouveresse, "Why I am so very unFrench", in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 12.

What do I do in a Philosophy essay?

Philosophy essay topics are not designed to provide an intellectual obstacle course that trips you up so as to delight a malicious marker. They are designed to invite you to "grapple with" with some particular philosophical problem or issue. That is to say, they are designed to offer you an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of a particular philosophical problem or issue, and to exhibit your own philosophical skills of analysis, argumentation, etc. These twin goals are usually best achieved by ensuring that your essay performs two basic functions (your understanding and your skills apply to both):

an exposition of the problem or issue in question (often as it is posed in some particular text); and a critical discussion of the problem or text

These two functions can, but need not always, correspond to physically or structurally distinct sections of your essay. See Section 5.1.

The expository ("setting forth") aspect of your essay is where you should make clear what the issue is and why it is an issue. Where you are dealing with an issue as it is presented in some particular text, your aim should be to make clear what it is that the author in question meant in their text, what they see as the issue and why they see it as an issue. This does not involve merely quoting or paraphrasing a text. Of course, occasional quotation and paraphrase may be appropriate - sometimes necessary - but these ought not to constitute the sole or major content of your exposition. Where you do quote or paraphrase, make sure you attribute your sources in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.)

Exposition is, then, primarily a matter of developing in your own words what you think the issue is or what you think the text means. In all expository work you should always try to give a fair and accurate account of a text or problem, even when the exposition becomes more interpretive rather than simply descriptive. You ought to be patient and sympathetic in your exposition, even if you intend later to criticise heavily the philosopher in question. Indeed, the better the exposition in this regard, usually the more effective the critique.

An important part of exposition is your analysis of the text or issue. Here you should try to "break down" the text, issue or problem into its constitutive elements by distinguishing its different parts. (E.g. "There are two basic kinds of freedom in question when we speak of freedom of the will. First, … . Second, …", or "There are three elements in Plato's conception of the soul, namely... He establishes these three elements by means of the following two arguments... ") This also involves showing the relationships between those elements, relationships which make them "parts of the whole".

As well as laying out these elements within a text or issue, you can also (when appropriate or relevant) show how a text or issue "connects up with" other texts, issues, or philosophical and/or historical developments, which can help to shed further light on the matter by giving it a broader context. (eg "Freedom of the will is importantly connected to the justification of punishment", or "Plato's tripartite theory of the soul bears interesting resemblances to Freud's analysis of the psyche", or "Kant's transcendental idealism can be seen as reconciling the preceding rationalist and empiricist accounts of knowledge".)

An exposition of a text need not always simply follow the author's own view of what it means. You should, of course, demonstrate that you understand how the author themself understands their work, but an exposition can sometimes go beyond this, giving another reading of the text. (eg "Heidegger might deny it, but his Being and Time can be read as developing a pragmatist account of human understanding.") A given text or issue may well be susceptible to a number of plausible or reasonable interpretations. An exposition should aim to be sensitive to such variety. When appropriate, you should defend your interpretations against rivals and objections. Your interpretation ought, though, to be aimed at elucidating the meaning or meanings of the text or issue and not serve merely as a "coat-hanger" for presenting your own favoured views on the matter in question, which should be left to your ...

Critical discussion

This is where your thought gets more of the centre stage. Here you should attempt to develop a response to the issues which your exposition has made clear, and/or, in the case of a discussion of some particular text, attempt to give a critical appraisal of the author's treatment of the issue. In developing a response to a philosophical problem, argumentation is, again, of central importance. Avoid making unsupported assertions; back up your claims with reasons, and connect up your ideas so that they progress logically toward your conclusions. Consider some of the various objections to and questions about your views that others might or have put forward, and try to respond to them in defence of your own line of thinking. Your goal here should be to discuss what you have expounded so as to come to some conclusion or judgement about it. ("Critical" is derived from the Ancient Greek for "to decide, to judge".) Critical discussion is thus not necessarily "destructive" or "negative"; it can be quite constructive and positive.

In the case of a critical appraisal of a particular author's text, you can negatively criticise the author's arguments by pointing out questionable assumptions, invalid reasoning, etc. If, on the other hand, you think that the text is good, then your critical discussion can be positive. This can be done by revealing its "hidden virtues" (that is, by showing that there is more to the author's arguments and views than what lies on the surface) and/or by defending an author against possible and/or actual criticisms. (eg "Norman Malcolm argues that Descartes is mistaken in assuming that dreams and waking episodes have the same content.* However, Malcolm fails to appreciate the subtlety of Descartes' argument in the First Meditation, which allows Descartes to claim . . .") Just to expound an author's arguments and then say "I disagree" or "That seems right" is not really enough - you need to "have something to say" about it. Of course, by all means go on, after finding fault with some philosopher, to answer in your own way the questions tackled or raised by the author. (eg "Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of women's oppression in The Second Sex suffers from serious weaknesses, as I have shown in Section 2 above. A better way to approach the issue, I shall now argue, is to . . .".)

Where you are not primarily concerned with evaluating or responding to a particular text, your critical discussion can be more focused on your own constructive response to the issue. (eg "Having used Dworkin's account to clarify the meanings of the concepts of 'the sanctity of life' and 'voluntariness', I shall now argue that voluntary euthanasia is morally permissible because its voluntariness respects what is of value in the notion of the sanctity of life" - where you now leave Dworkin behind as a source and move on to give your own account.)

* See Norman Malcolm, "Dreaming and Skepticism", in Willis Doney, ed., Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 56.

Guide to researching and writing Philosophy essays

5th edition by Steven Tudor , for the Philosophy program, University of Melbourne, 2003.

This fifth edition of How to Write a Philosophy Essay: A Guide for Students (previous editions titled A Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays ) was prepared in consultation with members of the Philosophy program, the University of Melbourne. For advice and assistance on this and earlier editions, thanks are due to Graham Priest, Barry Taylor, Christopher Cordner, Doug Adeney, Josie Winther, Linda Burns, Marion Tapper, Kimon Lycos, Brendan Long, Jeremy Moss, Tony Coady, Will Barrett, Brian Scarlett, and Megan Laverty. Some use was also made of materials prepared by the Philosophy Departments of La Trobe University, the University of Queensland, and The Australian National University.

Disclaimer: University, Faculty and program rules

Please note: this booklet does not provide authoritative statements of the official policies or rules of the University of Melbourne, the Faculty of Arts, or the Philosophy program with regard to student essays and examinations or any other matters. Students should, therefore, not rely on this booklet for such information, for which they should consult the various appropriate notice boards, handbooks, websites, and/or members of staff.

Essay topics

What do philosophy essay topics look like? There are, very roughly, two basic kinds of philosophy essay topics: "text-focused" topics and "problem-focused" topics. Text-focused topics ask you to consider some particular philosopher's writing on some issue. (eg "Discuss critically David Hume's account of causation in Part III of Book I of his A Treatise of Human Nature " or "Was Wittgenstein right to say that 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language', in his Philosophical Investigations, Sec. 43?"). Problem-focused topics are more directly about a particular philosophical problem or issue, without reference to any particular philosopher's text. (eg "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" or "What is scientific method?")

There is another sort of topic, one which presents a statement and asks you to discuss it, where that statement is a "made up" or, at least, unattributed quote. (eg. "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss.") I shall regard these as variations of the problem-focused type of topic. Where you are asked to discuss some such statement "with reference to" some specified text or philosopher, then that topic becomes more text-focused. (eg "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss with reference to J.L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. ") Occasionally, a topic presents an unattributed statement, but the statement is, in fact, a quote from a particular philosopher you've been studying, or, at least, a good paraphrase of their thinking. (An example of the latter: "'All the ideas in our minds originate from either sense perception or our reflection upon sensory information.' Discuss.", in a course devoted to John Locke, whose views are summed up in the quoted statement, though those words are not actually his.) Should you take such topics as problem- or text-focused? Rather unhelpfully, I'll say only that it depends on the case. You might ask your lecturer or tutor about it. Whichever way you do take it, be clear in your essay which way you are taking it.

The difference between text-focused and problem-focused essay topics is, however, not very radical. This is because, on the one hand, any particular philosopher's text is about some philosophical problem or question, while, on the other hand, most philosophical problems (certainly virtually all those you will be given as essay topics at university) will have been written about by previous philosophers.

The basic way to approach text-focused topics, then, is to treat the nominated text as an attempt by one philosopher to deal with a particular philosophical problem or issue. The essay topic will, generally speaking, be inviting you to do philosophy with that philosopher, to engage with them in thinking about the issue, whether that engagement proves to be as an ally or an adversary. The chosen text will usually be one which has been (or deserves to be) influential or significant in the history of philosophy, but the task is not to pay homage to past masters. But, even if homage is your thing, the best way to do that here is to engage with the master philosophically.

With regard to problem-focused topics, you will often find your exploration of the problem aided by taking some text or texts which have dealt with it as reference points or prompts. This is not always strictly necessary, but many of you starting out in philosophy will find it helpful to do so - it can help you give focus to your response to the question. (Thus, you might, in an essay on the topic "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" take it upon yourself to use, for example, Ronald Dworkin's Life's Dominion and Peter Singer's Practical Ethics as reference points. Or, in an essay on the topic "What is scientific method?", you might set up your answer via a comparison of the two different accounts in Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Paul Feyerabend's Against Method.*) How will you know which texts to adopt as reference points or prompts, if none is mentioned in the essay topic itself? One way is to consider what texts have already been mentioned with regard to the topic in your course reading guide and in lectures and tutorials. Another way is to do some of your own research. On this see Section 4 below.

* In this guide, in giving examples of how to go about answering an essay question, I am not necessarily giving any concrete or reliable advice for any particular topic. The examples are primarily to do with the form or style or strategy you might find helpful.

Researching your essay

To do research for your philosophy essay you need to do only two things: read and think. Actually, for problem-focused essays, thinking is the only truly necessary bit, but it's highly likely that you will find your thinking much assisted if you do some reading as well. Philosophical research at university is a little different to research in most other disciplines (especially the natural sciences), in that it is not really about "collecting data" to support or refute explanatory theories. Rather, the thinking that's involved in philosophical research (as part of one's preparation for philosophical writing) is more a matter of reflecting critically upon the problems in front of one. Researching the writings of other philosophers should, therefore, be primarily directed towards helping you with that reflection rather than aiming at gathering together and reporting on "the relevant findings" on a particular topic. In many other disciplines, a "literature review" is an important research skill, and sometimes philosophy academics do such reviews - but it is rare that philosophy students are asked to do one.

What, then, to read? It should be clear from your lectures and tutorials what some starting points for your reading might be. (All courses provide reading guides; many also have booklets of reading material.) Your tutor and lecturer are also available for consultation on what readings you might begin with for any particular topic in that subject. Independent research can also uncover useful sources, and evidence of this in your essay can be a pleasing sign of intellectual independence. Make sure, though, that what you come up with is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.) Whichever way you proceed, your reading should be purposive and selective.

In the case of essay questions that refer to a particular text, you should familiarise yourself thoroughly with this text. Usually, such a text will be a primary text, i.e. one in which a philosopher writes directly about a philosophical issue. Texts on or about a primary text are called secondary texts. (Many philosophical works will combine these two tasks, and discuss other philosophical texts while also dealing directly with a philosophical issue.) Some secondary texts can be helpful to students. However, don't think you will only ever understand a primary text if you have a nice friendly secondary text to take you by the hand through the primary text. More often than not, you need to have a good grasp of the primary text in order to make sense of the secondary text.

How much to read? The amount of reading you do should be that which maximises the quality of your thinking - that is, you should not swamp yourself with vast slabs of text that you can't digest, but nor should you starve your mind of ideas to chew over. There is, of course, no simple rule for determining this optimal amount. Be wary, though, of falling into the vice of looking for excuses not to read some philosopher or text, as in "Oh, that's boring old religious stuff" or "She's one of those obscure literary feminist types", or "In X Department they laugh at you if you mention those authors in tutes". If someone wants a reason not to think, they'll soon come up with one.

Philosophical writings

Most philosophical writings come in either of two forms: books or articles. Articles appear either in books that are edited anthologies or in academic journals, such as Philosophical Quarterly or Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Some academic journals are also on the internet. Most articles in the journals are written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers; similarly with many books. But by no means let this put you off. Everyone begins philosophy at the deep end - it's really the only kind there is!

There are, however, many books written for student audiences. Some of these are general introductions to philosophy as a whole; others are introductions to particular areas or issues (eg biomedical ethics or philosophy of science). Among the general introductions are various philosophical dictionaries, encyclopedias and "companions". These reference works collect short articles on a wide range of topics and can be very useful starting points for newcomers to a topic. Among the most useful of the general reference works are:

  • Edward Craig, ed., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols.) (London: Routledge, 1998)
  • Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 vols.) (New York: Macmillan, 1967)
  • Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Thomas Mautner, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 1998)
  • J.O. Urmson and Jonathan Ree, eds., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1993)
  • Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an internet-based reference work: )

Note taking

Note taking, like your reading, should not be random, but ought to be guided by the topic in question and by your particular lines of response to the issues involved. Note taking for philosophy is very much an individual art, which you develop as you progress. By and large it is not of much use to copy out reams of text as part of your researches. Nor is it generally helpful to read a great number of pages without making any note of what they contain for future reference. But between these two extremes it is up to you to find the mean that best helps you in getting your thoughts together.

Libraries and electronic resources

The University's Baillieu Library (including the Institute of Education Resource Centre), which is open to all members of the University, contains more than 2,500 years' worth of philosophical writings. The best way to become acquainted with them is by using them, including using the catalogues (including the Baillieu's on-line catalogues and subject resources web-pages), following up a work's references (and references in the references), intelligent browsing of the shelves, etc.

In the main Baillieu Library, the philosophical books are located (mostly) between 100–199 in the Dewey decimal system, and philosophical journals are located in the basement. The Reference section on the ground floor also has some relevant works. The Education Resource Centre also has a good philosophy collection.

In addition to hard-copy philosophical writings, there is also a variety of electronic resources in philosophy, mostly internet-based. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy was already mentioned above. Links to other useful internet sites (such as the Australasian Association of Philosophy website) can be found through the Baillieu Library's web-page and the Philosophy Department's web-page.

A strong word of warning, however, for the would-be philosophical web-surfer: because anyone can put material on a website, all kinds of stuff, of varying levels of quality, is out there - and new-comers to philosophy are usually not well placed to sort their way through it. Unless you have a very good understanding of what you're looking for - and what you're not looking for - most of you will be much better off simply carefully reading and thinking about a central text for your course, eg Descartes' First Meditation, rather than wandering about the internet clicking on all the hits for "Descartes". Exercise your mind, not your index finger.

Writing your essay

Planning and structuring your essay.

It is very important that you plan your essay, so that you have an idea of what you are going to write before you start to write it. Of course, you will most likely alter things in later drafts, but you should still start off by having a plan. Planning your essay includes laying out a structure. It is very important that your essay has a clearly discernible structure, ie that it is composed of parts and that these parts are logically connected. This helps both you and your reader to be clear about how your discussion develops, stage by stage, as you work through the issues at hand.

Poor essay structure is one of the most common weaknesses in student philosophy essays. Taking the time to work on the structure of your essay is time well spent, especially since skill in structuring your thoughts for presentation to others should be among the more enduring things you learn at university. A common trap that students fall into is to start their essay by writing the first sentence, then writing another one that seems to follow that one, then another one that sort of fits after that one, then another that might or might not have some connection with the previous one, and so on until the requisite 1,500 words are used up. The result is usually a weak, rambling essay.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about how to structure a philosophy essay. Again, it is a skill you develop through practice, and much will depend on the particular topic at hand. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to begin by developing an essay structure around the basic distinction between your exposition and your critical discussion (as discussed above). In this it will be important that you make clear who is putting forward which point, that is, make it clear whether you are presenting your own thoughts or are expounding someone else's. (Again, confusion in this regard is a common problem in student essays.) It can often help your structuring if you provide headings for different sections (possibly numbered or lettered). Again, this helps both your reader to follow your discussion and you to develop your thoughts. At each stage, show clearly the logical relations between and the reasons for your points, so that your reader can see clearly why you say what you say and can see clearly the development in your discussion.

Another key to structuring your essay can be found in the old adage "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you've told 'em", which provides you with a ready-made structure: Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion.

In your Introduction, first introduce the issues the essay is concerned with. In doing so, try to state briefly just what the problem is and (if there is space) why it is a problem. This also applies, of course, to issues covered in text-focused essay topics. Next, tell the reader what it is that you are going to do about those problems in the Main Body. This is usually done by giving a brief sketch or overview of the main points you will present, a "pre-capitulation", so to speak, of your essay's structure. This is one way of showing your reader that you have a grasp (indeed, it helps you get a grasp) of your essay as a structured and integrated whole, and gives them some idea of what to expect by giving them an idea of how you have decided to answer the question. Of course, for reasons of space, your Introduction might not be very long, but something along these lines is likely to be useful.

In your Main Body, do what you've said you'll do. Here is where you should present your exposition(s) and your critical discussion(s). Thus, it is here that the main philosophical substance of your essay is to be found. Of course, what that substance is and how you will present it will depend on the particular topic before you. But, whatever the topic, make clear at each stage just what it is you are doing. You can be quite explicit about this. (eg "I shall now present Descartes' ontological argument for the existence of God, as it is presented in his Fifth Meditation. There will be three stages to this presentation.") Don't think that such explicitness must be a sign of an unsophisticated thinker.

A distinct Conclusion is perhaps not always necessary, if your Main Body has clearly "played out" your argument. So you don't always have to present a grand summation or definitive judgement at the end. Still, often for your own sake, try to state to yourself what it is your essay has achieved and see if it would be appropriate to say so explicitly. Don't feel that you must come up with earth-shattering conclusions. Of course, utter banality or triviality are not good goals, either. Also, your essay doesn't always have to conclude with a "solution" to a problem. Sometimes, simply clarifying an issue or problem is a worthy achievement and can merit first-class honours. A good conclusion to a philosophy essay, then, will usually combine a realistic assessment of the ambit and cogency of its claims with a plausible proposal that those claims have some philosophical substance.

What you write in your essay should always be relevant to the question posed. This is another common problem in student essays, so continually ask yourself "Am I addressing the question here?" First-class answers to a question can vary greatly, but you must make sure that your essay responds to the question asked, even if you go on to argue that the question as posed is itself problematic. (eg "To ask ‘What is scientific method?' presupposes that science follows one basic method. However, I shall argue that there are, in fact, several different scientific methods and that these are neither unified nor consistent.") Be wary, however, of twisting a topic too far out of shape in order to fit your favoured theme. (You would be ill-advised, for example, to proceed thus: "What is scientific method? This is a question asked by many great minds. But what is a mind? In this essay, I shall discuss the views of Thomas Aquinas on the nature of mind.")

This requirement of relevance is not intended as an authoritarian constraint on your intellectual freedom. It is part of the skill of paying sustained and focused attention to something put before you - which is one of the most important skills you can develop at university. If you do have other philosophical interests that you want to pursue (such as Aquinas on mind), then please do pursue them, in addition to writing your essay on the set topic. At no stage does the requirement of relevance prevent you from pursuing your other interests.

Citing Philosophical "Authorities"

There might be occasions when you want to quote other philosophers and writers apart from when you are quoting them because they are the subject of your essay. There are two basic reasons why you might want to do this. First, you might quote someone because their words constitute a good or exemplary expression or articulation of an idea you are dealing with, whether as its proponent, critic, or simply its chronicler. (eg "As Nietzsche succinctly put the point, 'There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena'.*") You may or may not want to endorse the idea whose good expression you have quoted, but simply want to use the philosopher as a spokesperson for or example of that view. But be clear about what you think the quote means and be careful about what you are doing with the quote. It won't do all the work for you.

The second reason you might want to quote a philosopher is because you think their words constitute an "authoritative statement" of a view. Here you want to use the fact that, eg Bertrand Russell maintained that there are two kinds of knowledge of things (namely, knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description) in support of your claim that there are two such kinds of knowledge of things. However, be very careful in doing this, for the nature of philosophical authority is not so simple here. That is to say, what really matters is not that Bertrand Russell the man held that view; what matters are his reasons for holding that view. So, when quoting philosophers for this second reason, be careful that you appreciate in what exactly the authority lies - which means that you should show that you appreciate why Russell maintained that thesis. Of course, you can't provide long arguments for every claim you make or want to make use of; every essay will have its enabling but unargued assumptions. But at least be clear about these. (eg "For the purposes of this essay, I shall adopt Russell's thesis* that ...").

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [first German ed.1886]), Sec. 108.

* See Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967 [first pub. 1912]), Ch. 5.

Philosophy is by its nature a relatively abstract and generalising business. (Note that abstractness and generality are not the same thing. Nor do vagueness and obscurity automatically attend them.) Sometimes a longish series of general ideas and abstract reasonings can become difficult for the reader (and often the writer) to follow. It can often help, therefore, to use some concrete or specific examples in your discussion. (Note that there can be different levels of concreteness and specificity in examples.)

Examples can be taken from history, current events, literature, and so on, or can be entirely your own invention. Exactly what examples you employ and just how and why you use them will, of course, depend on the case. Some uses might be: illustration of a position, problem or idea to help make it clearer; evidence for, perhaps even proof of, a proposition; a counter-example; a case-study to be returned to at various points during the essay; or a problem for a theory or viewpoint to be applied to. Again, be clear about what the example is and how and why you use it. Be careful not to get distracted by, or bogged down in, your examples. Brevity is usually best.

English expression

There's another old saying: "If you can't say what you mean, then you can't mean what you say" - and this very much applies to philosophical writing. Thus, in writing philosophically, you must write clearly and precisely. This means that good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written, including its grammar and vocabulary. (See Section 9.3 for advice for people from non-English speaking backgrounds.) A high standard of writing skills is to be expected of Arts graduates. Indeed, this sort of skill will last longer than your memory of, for example, the three parts of the Platonic soul (though it is also hoped that some of the content of what you study will also stick). So use your time at university (in all your subjects) to develop these skills further.

Having a mastery of a good range of terms, being sensitive to the subtleties of their meaning, and being able to construct grammatically correct and properly punctuated sentences are essential to the clear articulation and development of your thoughts. Think of grammar, not as some old-fashioned set of rules of linguistic etiquette, but rather as the "internal logic" of a sentence, that is, as the relationships between the words within a sentence which enable them to combine to make sense.

Virtually all sentences in philosophical writing are declarative (ie. make statements), as opposed to interrogative, imperative or exclamatory types of sentences. There is some place, though, for interrogative sentences, ie. questions. (Note that, in contrast, this guide, which is not in the essay genre, contains many imperative sentences, ie. commands.) As you craft each (declarative) sentence in your essay, remember the basics of sentence construction. Make clear what the sentence is about (its subject) and what you are saying about it (the predicate). Make clear what the principal verb is in the predicate, since it is what usually does the main work in saying something about the subject. Where a sentence consists of more than one clause (as many do in philosophical writing), make clear what work each clause is doing. Attend closely, then, to each and every sentence you write so that its sense is clear and is the sense you intend it to have. Think carefully about what it is you want each particular sentence to do (in relation to both those sentences immediately surrounding it and the essay as a whole) and structure your sentence so that it does what you want it to do. To help you with your own sentence construction skills, when reading others' philosophical works (or indeed any writing) attend closely to the construction of each sentence so as to be alive to all the subtleties of the text.

Good punctuation is an essential part of sentence construction. Its role is to help to display the grammar of a sentence so that its meaning is clear. As an example of how punctuation can fundamentally change the grammar and, hence, meaning of a sentence, compare (i) "Philosophers, who argue for the identity of mind and brain, often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." and (ii) "Philosophers who argue for the identity of mind and brain often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." In the first sentence it is asserted (falsely, as it happens) that all philosophers argue for the identity of mind and brain; in the second, only some philosophers are said to argue for the identity of mind and brain. Only the punctuation differs in the two strings of identical words, and yet the meanings of the sentences are very different. Confusions over this sort of thing are common weaknesses in student essays, and leave readers asking themselves "What exactly is this student trying to say?"

It will be assumed that you can spell - which is not a matter of pressing the "spell-check" key on a word-processor. A good dictionary and a good thesaurus should always be within reach as you write your essay.

Also, try to shorten and simplify sentences where you can do so without sacrificing the subtlety and inherent complexity of the discussion. Where a sentence is becoming too long or complex, it is likely that too many ideas are being bundled up together too closely. Stop and separate your ideas out. If an idea is a good or important one, it will usually deserve its own sentence.

Your "intra-sentential logic" should work very closely with the "inter-sentential logic" of your essay, ie. with the logical relations between your sentences. (This "inter-sentential logic" is what "logic" is usually taken to refer to.) For example, to enable sentences P and Q to work together to yield sentence R as a conclusion, you need to make clear that there are elements within P and Q which connect up to yield R. Consider the following example: "Infanticide is the intentional killing of a human being. However, murder is regarded by all cultures as morally abhorrent. Therefore, people who commit infanticide should be punished." This doesn't work as an argument, because the writer has not constructed sentences which provide the connecting concepts in the various subjects and predicates, even though each sentence is grammatically correct (and possibly even true).

If you are concerned to write not only clearly and precisely, but also with some degree of grace and style (and I hope you are), it's still best to get the clarity and precision right first, in a plain, straightforward way, and then to polish things up afterwards to get the style and grace you want. But don't sacrifice clarity and precision for the sake of style and grace - be prepared to sacrifice that beautiful turn of phrase if its presence is going to send your discussion down an awkward path of reasoning. Aim to hit the nail on the head rather than make a loud bang. What you are likely to find, however, is that a philosophy essay which really is clear and precise will have a large measure of grace and style in its very clarity and precision.

Remember that obscurity is not a sign of profundity. (Some profound thought may well be difficult to follow, but that doesn't mean that one can achieve profundity merely through producing obscure, difficult-to-read writing.) Your marker is interested in what's actually in your essay, not what's possibly inside your head (or indeed what's possibly in some book you happen to have referred to in your essay). So avoid hinting at or alluding suggestively to ideas, especially where they are meant to do some important work in your essay. Instead, lay them out explicitly and directly. Of course, you won't have space to spell out every single idea, so work out which ideas do the most important work and make sure that you at least get those ideas clearly articulated. In expounding a text or problem that ultimately just is vague, muddled, or obscure, try to convey such vagueness, muddle or obscurity clearly, rather than simply reproducing it in your own writing. That is, be clear that and how a text or problem has such features, and then perhaps do your best to make matters clearer.

Despite these stern pronouncements, don't be afraid of sometimes saying things which happen to sound a little odd, if you have tried various formulations and think you have now expressed your ideas just as they should be expressed. Philosophy is often an exploratory business, and new ways of seeing and saying things can sometimes be a part of that exploration.

The need for clarity and precision in philosophical writing sometimes means that you need to stipulate your own meaning for a term. When you want to use a particular word in a particular way for the purposes of your essay - as a "technical term" - be clear about it. (eg "In this essay, I shall intend ‘egoism' to mean ...") Also, be consistent in your technical meanings, or else note when you are not. Be wary, though, of inventing too many neologisms or being too idiosyncratic in your stipulations.

With regard to what "authorial pronoun" to adopt in a philosophy essay, it's standard to write plainly in the first person singular ("I", "me", "my", etc.) rather than use the royal "we" (as in "we shall argue that ..."), or the convoluted quasi-legal indirect form ("It is submitted that ..."), or the scientific objectivity of a physics experimental report. Nonetheless, stick closer to "I argue", "I suggest", "my definition", etc., than to "I wish", "I hate", "my feeling", etc. A philosophy essay is still something more intellectual and formal than a personal reminiscence, polemic, or proclamation. In terms of audience, it's probably best to think of your reader as someone who is intelligent, open to discussion and knows a little about the topic you're writing on, but perhaps is not quite clear or decided about the issues, or needs convincing of the view you want to put forward, or is curious about what you think about the issues.

Try also to use non-discriminatory language, ie. language which does not express or imply inequality of worth between people on the basis of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. As you write, you will be considering carefully your choice of words to express your thoughts. You will almost always find that it is possible to avoid discriminatory language by rephrasing your sentences.

Other things to avoid:

  • waffle and padding
  • vagueness and ambiguity
  • abbreviations (this guide I'm writing isn't an eg. of what's req'd. in a phil. essay)
  • colloquialisms (which can really get up your reader's nose)
  • writing whose syntax merely reflects the patterns of informal speech
  • unnecessary abstractness or indirectness
  • unexplained jargon
  • flattery and invective
  • overly-rhetorical questions (do you really need me to tell you what they are?) and other flourishes

There are many guides to good writing available. Anyone who writes (whether in the humanities or the sciences, whether beginners or experienced professionals) will do well to have some on hand. Most good bookshops and libraries will have some. Among the most consulted works are (check for the latest editions):

  • J. M. Williams and G. C. Colomb, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
  • W. Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000)
  • E. Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987)
  • R. W. Burchfield, ed., The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Pam Peters, The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Australian Government Publishing Service, Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 5th ed. (Canberra: AGPS, 1995)

Vocabulary of logical argument

Closely related to the above points about English expression is the importance of having a good grasp of what can rather generally be called "the vocabulary of logical argument". These sorts of terms are crucial in articulating clearly and cogently a logical line of argument. Such argumentation will, of course, be of central importance in whatever discipline you are studying, indeed in any sphere of life that requires effective thinking and communication. I have in mind terms such as these (grouped a little loosely):

all, any, every, most, some, none, a, an, the that, this, it, he, she, they if . . . , then. . . ; if and only if . . . , then . . . ; unless either . . . or . . .; neither . . . nor . . . not, is, are therefore, thus, hence, so, because, since, follows, entails, implies, infer, consequence, conditional upon moreover, furthermore which, that, whose and, but, however, despite, notwithstanding, nevertheless, even, though, still possibly, necessarily, can, must, may, might, ought, should true, false, probable, certain sound, unsound, valid, invalid, fallacious, supported, proved, contradicted, rebutted, refuted, negated logical, illogical, reasonable, unreasonable, rational, irrational assumption, premise, belief, claim, proposition argument, reason, reasoning, evidence, proof

Most of these are quite simple terms, but they are crucial in argumentative or discursive writing of all kinds. (Many are themselves the subject of study in logic, a branch of philosophy). The sloppy use of these sorts of terms is another common weakness in students' philosophy essays. Pay close and careful attention to how you employ them. Moreover, pay close and careful attention to how the authors you read use them. For further discussion of some of these terms and others, see:

  • Basic Philosophical Vocabulary, prepared by the staff of the Philosophy Department and available from the programs Office
  • Wesley C. Salmon, Logic, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973)
  • Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking (London: Fontana, 1985)
  • Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry, Invitation to Critical Thinking, 4th ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1999)

Revising your essay

It is virtually essential that you write a first draft of your essay and then work on that draft to work towards your finished essay. Indeed, several drafts may well be necessary in order to produce your best possible work. It is a rare philosopher indeed who can get things perfectly right on the first attempt, so be prepared to revise and re-develop what you write. Don't be too precious about what you have written, if it appears that it should be sacrificed in the revision process. There is usually a very marked difference between essays which are basically first draft rush-jobs done the night before they are due and those which have been revised and polished. Give yourself time to revise by starting writing early on. For most philosophy students, the greater part of the work in essay writing is in the writing, not in the preliminary researches and planning stages. So be wary of thinking "I've done all the research. I only need to write up my notes, which I can do the night before the essay's due". This is likely to lead to a weak, perhaps non-existent, essay (and very likely a sleepless night).

Stick to the word limit given for your essay. Why are word limits imposed? First, to give the markers a fair basis for comparing student essays. Second, to give you the opportunity to practise the discipline of working creatively under constraints. Skill in this discipline will stand you in very good stead in any sphere where circumstances impose limitations. Again, word limits are not constraints on your intellectual freedom. Outside your essay you are free to write without limit. But even there you'll probably find that your creativity is improved by working under a self-imposed discipline.

As a general rule, most student essays that fall well short of the word limit are weak or lazy attempts at the task, and most essays that go well over the limit are not much stronger or the result of much harder work - the extra length is often due to unstructured waffle or padding which the writer hasn't thought enough about so as to edit judiciously. If you structure your essay clearly, you'll find it easier to revise and edit, whether in order to contract or expand it. ("Hmm, let's see: section 2 is much longer than section 4, but is not as important, so I'll cut it down. And I should expand section 3, because that's a crucial step. And I can shift that third paragraph in the Introduction to the Conclusion.")

Plagiarism and originality

Plagiarism is essentially a form of academic dishonesty or cheating. At university level, such dishonesty is not tolerated and is dealt with severely, usually by awarding zero marks for a plagiarised essay or, in some cases, dismissing a student from the university.

When you submit your essay, you are implicitly stating that the essay is your own original and independent work, that you have not submitted the same work for assessment in another subject, and that where you have made use of other people's work, this is properly acknowledged. If you know that this is not in fact the case, you are being dishonest. (In a number of university departments, students are in fact required to sign declarations of academic honesty.)

Plagiarism is the knowing but unacknowledged use of work by someone else (including work by another student, and indeed oneself - see below) and which is being presented as one's own work. It can take a number of forms, including:

  • copying : exactly reproducing another's words
  • paraphrasing : expressing the meaning of another's words in different words
  • summarising : reproducing the main points of another's argument
  • cobbling : copying, paraphrasing or summarising the work of a number of different people and piecing them together to produce one body of text
  • submitting one's own work when it has already been submitted for assessment in another subject
  • collusion : presenting an essay as your own independent work when in fact it has been produced, in whole or part, in collusion with one or more other people

None of the practices of copying, paraphrasing, summarizing or cobbling is wrong in itself, but when one or more is done without proper acknowledgment it constitutes plagiarism. Therefore, all sources must be adequately and accurately acknowledged in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.) Plagiarism from the internet in particular can be a temptation for a certain kind of student. However, be warned: there is a number of very good internet and software tools for identifying plagiarism.

With regard to collusion, it's undoubtedly often very helpful to discuss one's work with others, be it other students, family members, friends or teachers. Indeed, philosophy thrives on dialogue. However, don't kid yourself that you would simply be extending that process if you were to ask your interlocutor to join with you in the writing of your essay, whether by asking them to tell you what you should write or to write down some of their thoughts for you to reproduce in your essay. At the end of the day, you must be the one to decide what goes into your essay.


Students sometimes worry about whether they will be able to develop "original ideas", especially in light of the fact that nearly every philosophical idea one comes up with seems to have been thought of before by someone else. There is no denying that truly original work in philosophy is well rewarded, but your first aim should be to develop ideas that you think are good and not merely different. If, after arguing for what you believe is right, and arguing in way that you think is good, you then discover that someone else has had the same idea, don't throw your work away - you should feel vindicated to some extent that your thinking has been congruent with that of another (possibly great) philosopher. (If you have not yet handed your essay in when you make this discovery, make an appropriately placed note to that effect.) Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that plagiarism can be easily passed off as congruent thinking. Of course, if that other philosopher's ideas have helped you to develop your ideas, then this is not a matter of congruent ideas but rather of derivative ideas, and this must be adequately acknowledged. If, after developing your ideas, you discover that they are original, then that is an added bonus. But remember that it is more important to be a good philosopher than an original one.

Quotations, footnotes, endnotes and bibliography

Quotations in your essay should be kept to a minimum. The markers know the central texts pretty well already and so don't need to have pages thereof repeated in front of them. Of course, some quotation will usually be important and useful - sometimes essential - in both exposition and critical discussion.

When you quote the words of someone else directly, you must make the quotation clearly distinct from your own text, using quotation marks . (eg "Descartes said that 'it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.'* He makes this claim …" - where the words quoted from Descartes are in 'single quotation marks'. Note that it is relatively arbitrary whether one uses 'single' or "double" quotation marks for "first order" quotations, but whichever style you adopt, use it consistently in the one essay.) Alternatively, where the quoted passage is greater than three lines, put the quoted words in a separate indented paragraph , so that your essay would look like this:

In his First Meditation , Descartes argues as follows:

Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.* In this essay I shall argue that prudence does not in fact require us to distrust our senses and that Descartes's sceptical method is therefore seriously flawed.

In both cases, the quotations must be given proper referencingin a footnote or endnote.

When you are not quoting another person directly, but are still making use of their work - as in indirect quotations (eg "Descartes says that it is wise not to trust something that has deceived us before"*), paraphrases, summaries, and cobblings - you must still acknowledge your debts, using footnotes or endnotes.

* Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy , trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [first French ed., 1641]), p. 12.

Footnotes and endnotes

Footnotes appear at the foot of the same page on which the cited material appears, clearly separated from the main body of the text, each one clearly numbered. Endnotes appear at the end of the essay, again clearly separated from the main body of text, numbered and headed "Endnotes" or "Notes". Either method is acceptable, but you should choose one and stick with it throughout the one essay.

Below are some examples of how to put the relevant referencing information in footnotes and endnotes. This is not intended as an exercise in pedantry, but as a guide to how to provide the information needed for adequate referencing. The reason we provide this information is to enable our readers to find the sources we use in order to verify them and to allow them to pursue the material further if it interests them. In your own researches you will come to value good referencing in the texts you read as a helpful source of further references on a topic. Again, it is this sort of research skill that an Arts graduate will be expected to have mastered.

There are various conventions for writing up footnotes and endnotes. The Philosophy Department does not require that any particular convention be followed, only that you be consistent in your use of the convention that you do choose. For other conventions see the style guides mentioned above, or simply go to some texts published by reputable publishers and see what formats they employ.

Imagine, then, that the following are endnotes at the end of your essay. I will explain them below.

  • James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy , 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 25.
  • Philippa Foot, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack W. Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 155.
  • Ibid., p. 160.
  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed., 1785]), p. 63.
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub. 1651]),p. 65.
  • Rachels, The Elements, p. 51.
  • Peter Winch, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965), p. 212.
  • Antony Duff, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at 15 June 2003, sec. 6.

Notes explained

  • This is your first reference to a book called The Elements of Moral Philosophy. The title is given in full and in italics. If you are unable to use italics, then you should underline the title. The book's author is James Rachels. It's the 2nd edition of that book, which was published in New York, by the publishers McGraw-Hill, in 1993. The page you have referred to in your main text is page 25
  • This is your first reference to Philippa Foot's article, "Moral Relativism", the title of which is put in "quotation marks". This article appeared in a book (title in italics) which is an anthology of different articles, and which was edited by Krausz and Meiland (names in full). The rest is in the same style as note (1)
  • "Ibid." is short for "ibidem", which means "in the same place" in Latin. Use it on its own when you want to refer to exactly the same work and page number as in the immediately preceding note. So here the reference is again to Foot's article at page 155
  • Ditto, except this time you refer to a different page in Foot's article, namely page 160
  • This is reference to a book by Kant. Same book details as per note (1), except that, because this is a translation, you include the translator's name, and the date of the first edition in the original language
  • This is a book reference again, so it's the same as note (1), except that, because it's an old book, you include the date of the original edition. (How old does a book have to be before it merits this treatment? There is no settled view. Note, though, that this convention is not usually followed for ancient authors)
  • Here you are referring to Rachels' book again, but, because you are not in the very next note after a reference to it, you can't use "ibid.". Simply give the author's surname and a short title of the book, plus page reference. There is also a common alternative to this, whereby you give the surname, and write "op. cit." (which is short for "opere citato", which is Latin for "in the work already cited") and page reference (eg "Rachels, op. cit., p. 51.") Your reader then has to scan back over the notes to see what that "op." was exactly. The first option (author plus short title) is usually easier on the reader
  • This is a reference to an article by Peter Winch in a journal called The Monist. The article's title is in "quotes", the journal title is in italics. The volume of the journal is 49, the year of publication is 1965, the page referred to is p. 212
  • This is a reference to an article in the internet-based Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article is titled "Legal Punishment" and was written by Antony Duff. The Encyclopedia was edited by Edward N. Zalta. Note that I have basically followed the mode of citation that the Encyclopedia itself recommends. (This is one sign of the site being a reputable one. Where a site makes such a recommendation, it's best to follow it.) I have, however, also added the date on which the article was retrieved from the site, and put the author's given name first, to be consistent with the other footnotes. I have also added the reference to section 6, in an effort to be more precise as to where in the article the material I used came from. Since web pages aren't numbered in the manner of hard copy works, it will help if you are able to refer to some other feature, such as paragraphs or sections, so as to pin-point your reference. In the absence of a site recommending a mode of citation to its own material, the basic information needed for adequate citation of internet-based material is (where identifiable) the author, the document title, the year the document was created, the website name, the uniform resource locator (URL) in <arrow-brackets>, date of retrieval, and a pin-point reference*

* I am here following the mode of citation of internet materials recommended in Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, Australian Guide to Legal Citation , 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, 2002), pp. 70-73. I have, though, added the desirability of a pin-point reference.


At the end of your essay (after your endnotes, if used) you should list in a bibliography all of the works referred to in your notes, as well as any other works you consulted in researching and writing your essay. The list should be in alphabetical order, going by authors' surnames. The format should be the same as for your notes, except that you drop the page references and should put surnames first. So the bibliography of our mock-essay above would look like this:

  • Duff, Antony, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at 15 June 2003
  • Foot, Philippa, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982)
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub.1651])
  • Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals , trans. H.J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed. 1785])
  • Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy , 2nd ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993)
  • Winch, Peter, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965)

Presentation of essays and seeking advice

Generally, you should present an essay that is legible (hand-writing is OK, but typed or word-processed essays are preferable), in English, on one side of pieces of paper that are somewhere in the vicinity of A4 size and are fixed together . You should attach a completed Cover Sheet provided by the Philosophy program. Plastic document covers, spiral binding and other forms of presentational paraphernalia are not necessary (nor are they usually even desirable, as they mostly just get in the marker's way).

Late essays

Late essays are penalised . (For details of penalties consult the Philosophy program's notice board.)

Essays not handed in

Essays not handed in at all get zero marks. An essay that is handed in but gets a mark below 50 (and so is technically a "failed" essay) still gets some marks. (At least, it will so long as it's not so extremely late that the deducted marks wipe out all the marks it would have received if handed in on time.) All marks received for your essay (whether pass or fail) go toward your final score in the subject. Therefore, even if you think your essay is bound to fail (but please let your marker be the judge of that), or the due date has already passed, or both, it is still in your interests to hand your essay in .

Tutors and lecturers

Philosophy staff are not there just to be listened to by you; they are also there to listen to you. So don't hesitate to contact your tutor or lecturer to discuss questions or problems you have concerning your work.

If you have a legitimate excuse, you may be granted an extension on the due date for your essay by the lecturer in charge. Similarly, special consideration may also be granted when illness or other circumstances adversely affect your work. Applications for special consideration are made online via the Special Consideration web page.

Student counselling

Some personal or non-philosophical academic difficulties you might have you might want to discuss with someone other than your tutor or lecturer. Student Counselling and Psychological Services are there for you to discuss all sorts of problems you might encounter. Please consult your student diary for details on the counselling service.

English language assistance

As noted above, good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written. If you are from a non-English speaking background and are having difficulties with your English expression in an academic context, you might like to make use of the services provided by Student Services Academic Skills . Many native English speakers, too, can benefit from short "refresher" courses and workshops run by the Centre. Please consult your student diary for details about this service.

A bit on Philosophy exams

Essays of the sort discussed so far in this guide are not the only form of assessment in the Philosophy program - examinations are also set. What is to be said about them?

First, not much that is different from what's been said above about philosophy essays. This is because what you write in a philosophy exam is none other than a philosophy essay . Have a look at past philosophy exam papers, in the Gibson and Baillieu libraries, to get a feel for them. The only basic difference between essays and exams is the matter of what constraints you're working under. Essays have word limits; exams have time limits . Again, stick to them. (Actually, you'll be made to stick to them by the exam invigilators.)

It's best, then, to think about how long to spend writing on an exam essay topic, rather than about how many words to write on it. Simple arithmetic will tell you how much time to spend on each exam question. (eg if you have a 2-hour exam and have to answer 3 questions, each worth one-third of the exam mark, then spend 40 minutes on each question.) Avoid the trap of "borrowing time" from a later question in order to perfect your answer to an earlier question, and then working faster on the later questions to catch up on lost time - this is likely to get you in a tangle. There are no word limits in philosophy exam essays, but don't think that the more you scrawl across the page, the more marks you'll get. Nonetheless, use the time you've got so as to maximise your display of your philosophical understanding and skills in answering the question.

Planning and structuring remain very important in exam essays. With regard to the niceties of footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies, etc., these are not necessary, so don't waste time on these. However, if you quote or refer to a specific passage from a text, do indicate clearly that it is a quotation or reference. (The principle of being clear as to who is saying what remains central.) If you have the reference handy, just put it briefly in the text of your exam essay. (eg "As Descartes says in Meditation I (p. 12), . . ." or "'[I]t is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once' (Descartes, Meditation I, p. 12)".) Generally speaking, you will show your familiarity with any relevant texts by how you handle them in your discussion. This is also true for your non-exam essays.

Your preparation for the exam should have been done well before entering the exam hall. Note that various subjects have restrictions on what texts and other items can be brought into the exam hall. (Consult the Philosophy program's notice board for details.) Many subjects will have "closed book" exams. Even if an exam is "open book", if you are properly prepared, you should not need to spend much time at all consulting texts or notes during the exam itself.

You won't have time for redrafting and revising your exam essay (which makes planning and structuring your answers before you start writing all the more important). If you do want to delete something, just cross it out clearly. Don't waste time with liquid paper or erasers. Write legibly . Don't wr. "point form" sav. time. Diff. kn. mean. use incomp. sent.

Finally, read the instructions at the beginning of the exam paper. They are important. (eg it's not a good strategy to answer two questions from Part A, when the Instructions tell you to answer two questions, one from Part A and one from Part B.) Note the (somewhat quaint) University practice of starting Reading Time some time before the stated time for the exam. Philosophy exams usually have 15 minutes of reading time. (Check for each of your exams.) So, if your exam timetable says the exam is at 2.15 pm, with reading time of 15 minutes, then the reading time starts at 2.00 pm and the writing time starts at 2.15pm - so get to the exam hall well before 2.00 pm. Reading time is very important. Use it to decide which questions you'll answer and to start planning your answers.

Checklist of questions

  • Do I understand the essay question ? Do I know when the essay is due ?
  • Do I know which texts to consult? Do I know where to find them?
  • Have I made useful notes from my reading of the relevant texts?
  • Have I made a plan of how I'll approach the question in my essay?
  • Have I given myself enough time to draft and redraft my essay?
  • Have I written a clearly structured essay? Is it clear what each stageis doing? Do I do what I say I'll do in my Introduction?
  • Have I clearly distinguished exposition and critical discussion ? Have I given a fair and accurate account of the author(s) in question?
  • Is my response to the topic relevant ? Do I answer the question? Have I kept my essay within the general bounds of the topic?
  • Have I displayed a good grasp of the vocabulary of logical argument ? Are my arguments logically valid and sound? Are my claims supported by reasons ? Am I consistent within my essay?
  • Is my English expression clear and precise ? Are my grammar, punctuation and spelling correct? Have I said what I meant to say? Is my writing legible?
  • Have I fully acknowledged all my sources in footnotes or endnotes? Are my quotations accurate? Have I included a bibliography ?
  • Do I need to revise any part of my essay again?
  • Have I made a copy or photocopy of my essay for myself?
  • Have I kept the receipt for my handed-in essay?
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Referencing & help.

  • Good essay writing begins with good course preparation. You should remember that just attending courses is not enough. You will engage with the lectures and seminars only if you do the required primary and secondary reading. By the time you come to write your first essay you should already know enough to approach the subject confidently.
  • Make sure you have properly understood the question. If you do not, ask. Review your lecture notes and the course outline in order to put the question into context and to relate it to other aspects of the subject. If you can break down the question into parts, do so. Decide which are the most important and weight each part accordingly.
  • Read the suggested texts with your question or questions in mind. If you find the reading hard to understand, try reading a whole article or chapter to get the gist and then re-read slowly, making notes.
  • Think for yourself. Don't borrow thought or ideas without giving yourself time to digest them. Discuss them with your fellow students. It can be very helpful to discuss the articles and books you read with others. Also, when you take notes, don't simply excerpt long passages, write them in your own words.
  • Always start from a plan, however rudimentary; but you will inevitably find your argument developing a dynamic of its own, so do not be afraid to revise your plan as you go along. As Socrates says in Plato's Republic: 'Where the argument takes us, like a wind, hither we must go.'
  • Write a draft, leave it for a while, then come back and revise it. On the first draft concentrate on getting the content and structure right and do not dwell on the style. Do not be held up by the precise formulation of a sentence, jot down a phrase and move on.
  • Write the final draft. Check the spelling, grammar and make sure all the bibliographical details are correct. leave a wide margin on the right hand side of your page for the marker's comments. Be kind on your marker: use a font that is easy to read and a line spacing of at least 1.5 or 2. Make a photocopy of your essay as a precaution, since they sometimes can go astray.
  • Your essay should contain a clear exposition of the theory you are studying, a detailed discussion and critical assessment of that theory. The criticisms you look at may be your own, or those of other philosophers.
  • Make sure you indicate when you are expounding the view of someone else and when you are writing in your own voice. Don't just write a long list of objections to a particular argument. Indicate whether you endorse or reject them and give your reasons.
  • Use examples to illustrate your point. Preferably, choose your own examples. Always make the point of your example clear to the reader.
  • Don't worry too much about the 'originality' of the content of your essay. Nobody expects you to come up with a new philosophical theory in your first four pages of writing. Your essay will be original enough if you think for yourself, use your own words, give your own examples and always provide reasons for accepting or rejecting a particular view.
  • Avoid rambling introductions and conclusions. Some books begin with a portentous opening sentence e.g., 'Philosophy, from the earliest times, has made greater claims, and achieved fewer results, than any other branch of learning.' (B. Russell) You can get away with such a sentence as the opening line of a 400 page book, but not as the opening line of a 4 page essay. State briefly what you think the question involves, if this is not obvious, and get stuck in to your answer. With conclusions, sum up your argument if you want to and leave it at that.
  • Think small or be methodical. There is a gap between your brain's ability to grasp something and your ability to express in writing what you have already understood. It is as if your intuition can leap up whole flights of stairs at once, whereas your written explanations climb one step at a time. This means that you can easily get ahead of yourself, producing the illusion that your ideas are far more lofty than they really are. Only by patiently stepping through the details of an argument can you avoid such illusions. So be patient! If you are not sure whether you have made your point, try putting it another way; 'The upshot of this argument is...', 'the point of this example is...'. Do not simply repeat yourself, try instead to look at your subject from different angles. Sometimes it will feel as if your point is trivial and not worth making. But a trivial point can be a solid step in an interesting argument. The ability to tease out the subtleties of a small point will serve you better than a grand philosophy of life, the universe and everything.
  • One way to structure your essay is to outline an argument, consider an objection, then reply to the objection and then move on to the next point. Avoid the two extremes of length and unbroken paragraphs on the one hand, and staccato sound bytes on the other. Divide your essay into clearly defined paragraphs and devote a whole paragraph to each point. Make the connections between them explicit, by telling the reader what they are. Write things like, 'There are two major objections to this line of thought...' or 'what this example shows is...' Think of these connections as signposts telling the reader where she is, where she has been or reminding her where she is heading.
  • 'Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap.' Do not worry about repeating important words or phrases. In philosophy it is more important to be consistent in your terminology than to find new and imaginative ways of saying the same thing. Clear prose has its own elegance, wordiness can sometimes cloud the issue.
  • Empathise with your reader. Once you understand something, you forget what it was like not to understand it; but doing just this will help you to get your point across. To write clearly you have to put yourself in the place of your reader. Imagine the reader is someone who knows nothing about the subject. What would you have to do firstly to convince them and secondly to maintain their interest. Generally speaking a concrete example will get you much further than a passage of purple prose or a string of high-falutin' epithets. One useful way to attain clarity and simplicity of style is to write in short sentences. It is easier to waffle in long rambling sentences.
  • Use 'signposts' to let the reader know what you are trying to do. You can say things like , 'one objection is...', 'A possible reply to this is...', 'What this example shows...', 'This importance of this point is that...', 'What X is assuming is that...'. Be explicit about what you are arguing and why.
  • Stylistically it is vital to use your own words. Quite apart from the dangers of plagiarism, if you borrow chunks of text from another author and then insert them into your essay, you will end up with a patchwork of different styles that reads awkwardly. By all means paraphrase someone else's view, although make it clear that you are paraphrasing. This will help you to understand the position you are adumbrating; and there is a lot of skill involved in a lucid and concise exposition of somebody else's argument.
  • Occasionally you will want to cite somebody else's words directly. Be sparing in your use of quotation. There is much less skill to quotation than to paraphrase or précis. When you select a passage for quotation, make sure it is both brief and relevant. There is nothing worse than reading a string of long quotations interspersed with brief and gnomic comments.
  • Use a dictionary (or spell check) and a grammar. Good spelling and good grammar are not wholly unrelated to the content of your essay. The thread of an essay is easier to follow if the reader does not have to guess the word which you actually meant to write. Good grammar makes not only for elegant but for precise prose. So do not be ashamed to use a dictionary. I prefer the Chambers to the Collins single volume dictionary, but both are good. (Webster's and M.S. Word dictionaries are American.) Michael Dummet, the philosopher, has written an excellent little English grammar for his students, published by Duckworth.

Use of sources

  • All verbatim quotations, whether long or short should be enclosed in inverted commas or indented, and the precise source given. Make sure that you give enough information for the reader to find the passage, i.e. author, work, edition page number or section.
  • Passages of close paraphrase should be acknowledged, and the purpose of these paraphrases made clear e.g. as a summary of a view to be discussed disputed or agreed with.
  • When a point has been derived directly from an author, even though it mode of expression may be original, this should be acknowledged in a footnote or parenthesis.
  • Extensive use of an essay written by another student should be acknowledged. This applies to essays borrowed from the 'Essay Bank' and to essays which are borrowed on a personal basis. Just as the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence on published sources is not supposed to discourage you from reading widely, the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence where it exists, on other students' essays, is not supposed to discourage you from reading each others' essays. In the end however the only thing of value to you and of interest to us is work in which you express and develop your own thoughts.
  • At the end of any essay to be submitted for formal assessment (not tutorial essays) write a list in alphabetical order of all the works consulted or read during the preparation and writing of the essay, as well as those from which you quote directly (see Referencing).


The Philosophy Department accepts the Harvard or MLA styles of referencing.  Please refer to the specific information below on each permitted style.

Additional help

You may find the extra help below useful when writing Philosohy essays.

This guide to writing Philosophy essays was written by Gordon Finlayson

Department of Philosophy University of York , York , YO10 5DD , UK Tel: work +44 (0)1904 323251 | Fax: fax +44 (0)1904 324023 | [email protected]

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A Guide to Writing Philosophy Papers

In some respects, writing an undergraduate-level philosophy paper is not unlike writing an undergraduate-level paper in any of the other humanities or social sciences.  In fact, one could argue that philosophical writing should act as a model for writing in other disciplines.  This is because one of the central aims of western philosophy, since its inception in Ancient Greece, almost two and a half millennia ago, has been to lay bare the structure of all forms of argument, and most undergraduate writing, in any subject, requires the use of argument to defend claims.  However, there are also important differences between the writing styles appropriate to philosophical papers and papers in other subjects.  Most notably, philosophy papers usually focus more on logical structure than on content: the point is not to synopsize exhaustive literature reviews, but, rather, to focus as much as possible on relatively narrow sets of claims, and investigate their logical inter-relations.  Philosophers are less interested in exhaustive cataloging of the latest information on a topic, than in the relations of logical, argumentative support that well-established claims bear to each other, and to certain enduring, controversial claims, like the claim that God exists.

In the following, I provide a four-part guide to writing an undergraduate-level philosophy paper.  First, I explain what philosophical  arguments  are, and how they can be evaluated.  The point of any philosophy paper is to formulate and/or evaluate philosophical arguments, so this brief, rudimentary discussion is essential as a starting point.  Second, I explain the structure and style appropriate for a philosophy paper.  Third, I give students some ideas about how to choose a topic and formulate a writing plan appropriate to a philosophy paper.  Fourth, and finally, I provide a short primer on logic, which can help students formulate and evaluate philosophical arguments.

Before proceeding, let me remark about the scope of this guide.  Although it is intended as a guide to writing philosophy papers for any philosophy WID class, many philosophy instructors would disagree with at least some part of what follows.  Western philosophy has been dominated by two divergent traditions for the last two hundred years or so: the “continental” tradition and the “analytic” or “Anglo-American” tradition.  The former is associated primarily with philosophers from continental Europe, especially Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault.  The latter is associated primarily with philosophers who worked in the UK and the US (though many of its most prominent representatives are German natives).  Frege, Russell, Carnap, Austin, Grice, Strawson, and Quine, are among the most famous figures associated with this tradition.  Although it is difficult to briefly characterize the difference between these two traditions, roughly speaking, while the analytic tradition takes logic, mathematics, and science as models for doing philosophy, the continental tradition is more literary and impressionistic in its approach to philosophical problems.  I am trained in the analytic tradition, and the following writing guidelines reflect this.  Thus, before using this as a guide to your philosophical writing, make sure that your class and instructor are in the analytic tradition.  Although much of the advice I offer below is, I hope, relevant to classes in the continental tradition, it might also seriously misrepresent philosophical writing as understood from the continental perspective.

Even within the analytic tradition, there can be substantive disagreements about student writing.  For example, a colleague who works in the analytic tradition read an earlier draft of this guide and was, for the most part, impressed; however, he disagreed with my view that external sources are better paraphrased than directly cited.  Although I think most instructors working in the analytic tradition would agree with most of the guidelines I provide below, you should have your instructor skim them to make sure that he or she does not take exception to any of them.  As a guide to an initial, rough, paper draft, the following is, I think, an invaluable resource.  Subsequent drafts should incorporate specific comments from the instructor whose class you are taking.  

1. Philosophical Arguments

Understanding Arguments

The point of a philosophical paper is to make and evaluate philosophical arguments.  ‘Argument’ is a term of art in philosophy.  It means more than a mere dispute.  An argument, as philosophers use this term, is a set of claims, that is, a set of declarative sentences (sentences which can be true or false).  One of the claims is the conclusion of the argument: that which the argument attempts to prove.  The other claims are the premises of the argument: the reasons that are given in support of the conclusion.  The conclusion is a relatively controversial claim that the author aims to establish on the basis of relatively uncontroversial premises.  For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher and theologian, famously provides five ways to prove the existence of God.  The conclusion of Aquinas’s arguments is that God exists – a controversial claim.  He tries to establish this conclusion on the basis of less controversial premises, e.g., that objects are in motion, that anything in motion must have been put in motion by a different thing already in motion, and that this chain of causes must begin at some point.

Because the construction and evaluation of arguments is the point of a philosophy paper, clarity, precision, and organization are of paramount importance.  One cannot determine whether or not some set of premises supports a conclusion unless both premises and conclusion are formulated clearly and precisely.  For example, consider the following argument: “Laws can be repealed by the legislature.  Gravity is a law.  Therefore, gravity can be repealed by the legislature.”   On one level, this argument appears to make sense: it appears to have the same form as many sound arguments, like, “Beverages can be warmed in the microwave.  Tea is a beverage.  Therefore, tea can be warmed in the microwave.”  However, there is obviously something wrong with the first argument.  The problem is that the world “law” is used in two different senses: in the first premise and the conclusion, it means roughly the same as “social rule enacted by political means”, while in the second premise, it means roughly the same as “natural law”.  Because the word “law”, as it is used in the second premise, means something entirely different from its use in the conclusion, the premise is of no relevance to the conclusion, and so, provides no logical support for it.  This shows why it is so important to be as precise and clear as possible in philosophical writing.  Words often mean different things in different contexts, and, unless their meaning is made as clear and precise as possible, it is impossible to tell whether or not the claims words are used to formulate support each other.

Organization is important to make clear the complex logical relations that different claims bear to each other.  Consider Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God, to which I allude above.  The conclusion is that God exists.  The premises are that objects are in motion, that objects can be put in motion only by other objects already in motion, that there is a chain of causes extending into the past, and that if this chain of causes were infinite then there would be no motion.  But how, exactly, do these premises conspire to establish the conclusion that God exists?  The key to answering this question is appreciating the structure or organization of the argument.  The structure of philosophical arguments can often be captured in a kind of flow-chart diagram.  Each ‘node’ is a claim (premise or conclusion), and links between nodes represent logical support.  So, for example, in Aquinas’s First Way, the node which represents the premise that objects are in motion does not link directly to the node which represents the conclusion: how can the claim that objects are in motion, alone, give sufficient logical support for the claim that God exists?  After all, atheists acknowledge that objects are in motion, yet deny that God exists.

The structure of Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God is approximated in the following diagram.

Note that the claim that objects are in motion (premise 1) must be joined with the claim that objects in motion are put in motion by other objects already in motion (premise 2), in order to support the claim that there is a causal chain of objects in motion extending into the past (premise 3), which constitutes the “sub-conclusion” of this “sub-argument”.  Premise 3 must then be joined with premise 5 – the claim that this causal chain begins at some point – in order to support the claim that there is a first cause responsible for all the motion in the world, identified by Aquinas as God (premise 6).  But premise 5 is not obvious on its own.  It needs support from still other premises.  For example, Aquinas claims that if there were no start to this chain of causes, none of the subsequent causes would occur (premise 4).  Together with premise 1, premise 4 then supports premise 5, which, together with premises 3 and 6, supports the claim that there must be a first cause, namely, God (C).  So premise 5 is another “sub-conclusion” of a “sub-argument”, which supports the ultimate conclusion (C).

The lesson from this example is that different claims have complicated relations of support to each other.  Some premises support the conclusion only when conjoined with other premises.  And other premises are like “sub-conclusions”, which must be supported by still other premises in “sub-arguments”, before they can be used to help establish the ultimate conclusion.  Since the goal of writing an undergraduate philosophy paper is to formulate and evaluate arguments, organization is crucial.  The author must make clear for the reader not just what the different premises and conclusions claim, but, also, how they relate to each other, that is, in what way they support each other.

Evaluating Arguments

There are only two ways that any argument can go wrong.  An argument is good when its premises count as good reasons for its conclusion.  What makes a premise a good reason for a conclusion?  First, the premise must be true, or at least more plausible than the conclusion.  For example, suppose I argue for the conclusion that Washington DC is likely the next home of the Stanley Cup champions on the basis of the following premises: the Bruins are likely the next Stanley Cup Champions, and they are based in Washington DC.  This argument fails because at least one of its premises is false: the Bruins are based in Boston, not Washington DC.  However, sometimes even true premises fail to qualify as good reasons for a conclusion.  For example, suppose I argue for the conclusion that Washington DC is likely the next home of the Stanley Cup champions on the basis of the following premises: the Redskins are likely the next Superbowl Champions, and they are based in Washington DC.  Here, the latter premise is true, and the previous premise may very well be true.  However, the argument is still bad.  The reason is that, even if these premises are true, they do not support the conclusion.  The claims that the Redskins are likely the next Superbowl Champions and that the Redskins are based in Washington DC, are  irrelevant  to the conclusion: the claim that Washington DC is likely the next home of the Stanley Cup champions.  So, there are two ways any argument can go wrong: either the premises it offers in support of its conclusion are false or implausible, or, even if they are true, they fail to support the conclusion because, for example, they are irrelevant to the conclusion.

Any philosophical writer must constantly keep these two potential pitfalls of argumentation in mind, both in formulating her own arguments and in evaluating the arguments of others.  Undergraduate philosophy papers are often devoted exclusively to evaluating the arguments of well-known philosophers.  Such critical papers must be guided by four basic questions: (1) What, precisely, do the premises and conclusion claim? (2) How, precisely, are the premises supposed to support the conclusion, i.e., what is the organization/structure of the argument? (3) Are the premises true/plausible? (4) Do the premises provide adequate support for the conclusion?  Note that philosophical critiques of arguments seldom attack the conclusion directly.  Rather, the conclusion is undermined by showing the premises to be false or implausible, or by showing that the premises, even if true, do not provide adequate support for the conclusion.  Conclusions are attacked directly only on the grounds of imprecision or lack of clarity.

Despite the fact that arguments can be criticized on the grounds that their premises are false or implausible, most philosophical writing is focused not on determining the truth of premises, but, rather, on determining whether or not premises provide strong enough support for conclusions.  There are three reasons for this.  First, the most enduring philosophical arguments take as little for granted as possible: they rely on premises that are maximally uncontroversial – likely to be accepted by everyone – in order to prove conclusions that are controversial.  Second, most philosophers have a strong background in logic.  Logic is the science of argument: it aims to identify what all good arguments have in common and what all bad arguments have in common.  But logic can be used only to evaluate the support that premises provide for a conclusion, never the truth or plausibility of the premises themselves.  Any argument must take some claims as unargued starting points; otherwise, the argument could never get off the ground, as any premise would require a prior argument to be established.  But logic can evaluate only arguments, so it cannot be used to evaluate the unargued starting premises with which any argument must begin.  Third, the premises upon which many arguments depend often depend on observation, either in everyday life, or in specialized, scientific contexts such as experiments.  But philosophers are not, for the most part, trained in experimental methodologies.  They are trained in determining what follows logically from experimental results established in science or from common, everyday observations.

I discuss strategies for evaluating and formulating philosophical arguments in more detail below, in section 4.  Now I turn to the structure and style appropriate for a philosophy paper.  

2. Appropriate Structure and Style for a Philosophy Paper

Organizing the Paper

Although the philosophical canon includes a wide variety of styles and structures, including argumentative essays, axiomatically-organized systems of propositions, dialogs, confessions, meditations, historical narratives, and collections of aphorisms, most of these styles and structures are inappropriate for the novice, undergraduate, philosophical writer.  Because the main concern of undergraduate philosophical writing is the formulation and evaluation of arguments, style and structure must be chosen with these goals in mind.  As we have seen, precision, clarity, and organization are key to the understanding, formulation, and evaluation of arguments.  If one’s language is not clear and precise, it is impossible to know what claims are being made, and therefore, impossible to determine their logical inter-relations.  If one’s arguments are not clearly organized, it is difficult to determine how the different premises of an argument conspire to support its conclusion.  As we saw above, with the example of Aquinas’ First Way to prove the existence of God, arguments are often composed of “sub-arguments” defending “sub-conclusions” that constitute premises in overall arguments.  Unless such logical structure is perspicuously represented in a philosophy paper, the reader will lose track of the relevance that different claims bear to each other, and the paper will fail to enlighten the reader.

The best way to impose clarity and structure on a philosophy paper is to begin with a brief, clear, and concise introduction, outlining the organization of the rest of the paper.  This introduction should be treated as a “map” of the rest of the paper that will prepare the reader for what is to follow.  Alternatively, one may think of it as a “contract” with the reader: the author promises to discuss such and such related claims, in such and such an order.  The introduction should make clear the logical inter-relations between the different claims that the paper will defend, and the order in which the claims will be discussed.  With such an outline in hand, the writer can then organize the rest of the paper into numbered, sub-titled sub-sections, each devoted to the different parts of her argument, in the order outlined in the introduction.  This helps maintain focus and clarity throughout the paper for the reader.

One of the greatest pitfalls in philosophical writing is distraction by tangential topics.  Philosophical themes are extremely broad, and many of them are relevant to almost anything.  So it is very tempting for a novice philosophical writer (and even for seasoned veterans) to stray from her original topic in the course of writing the paper.  This throws the writer’s main goal – that of clearly articulating an argument capable of convincing a reader – into jeopardy; however, this danger can be avoided if the writer makes clear in the introduction exactly what components of a topic, and in what order, she intends to discuss and why, and then uses this to organize the rest of the paper.  If the writer does this, readers should know exactly “where they are” in the overall argument, at any point in the paper, simply by noting the number and title of the sub-section they are reading, and referring to the introduction to understand its role in the paper’s overall argument.

A good introduction to a 10-page philosophy paper should take up no more than two-thirds of a page.  It should accomplish three main objectives: (1) setting up the context for the paper, i.e., which philosophical debate or topic is the focus, (2) expressing the thesis of the paper, i.e., the conclusion it aims to defend, and (3) explaining, in broad terms, how the paper aims to defend this conclusion, i.e., what are the components of the argument, and in what order they will be discussed.  The first objective, setting up the context, often requires reference to historically important philosophers known for defending claims related to the thesis of the paper.  The components of the argument might include, first, an overview of how others have argued for or against the thesis, then a few sections on different assumptions made in these arguments, then a section in which the author provides her own argument for the thesis, and then a conclusion.

Consider the following example of an introduction to a paper about Aquinas’ First Way to prove the existence of God.

Aquinas, famously, provides five arguments for the existence of God.  In the following, I focus on his First Way to prove the existence of God: the argument from motion.  The claim that there can be no causal chains extending infinitely into the past plays a crucial role in this argument.  In this paper, I argue against this claim, thereby undermining Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God.  First, I explain Aquinas’s argument, and the role that the claim about infinite causal chains plays in it.  Second, I explain Aquinas’s defense of this claim.  Third, I raise three objections to this defense.  I conclude by drawing some broader lessons for the question of God’s existence.

Notice that, despite its brevity, this introduction is very specific and clear regarding what the author intends to accomplish in the paper.  The thesis is stated clearly and concisely.  Brief reference to Aquinas, his five proofs for the existence of God, and the specific proof on which the paper focuses provide necessary context.  Specificity and clarity are aided further with the use of numbering.  The reader knows to expect four sections following the introduction, and she knows exactly what each section will try to accomplish, and its role in the overall project of the paper.  She knows to expect three objections to the argument that is the main target of the paper, in the third section after the introduction.  And the writer can now easily structure the paper into five, numbered sub-sections (including the introduction), with appropriate titles, meant to periodically remind the reader of where she is in the overall argument.

When the writer starts with such a well-defined structure, it is relatively easy to avoid the pitfall of tangential distractions.  Beginning with such an introduction is not meant to be unreasonably constraining.  In the course of writing the paper, an author might revise her thinking about the topic, and be forced to reconceptualize the paper.  She would then have to begin by revising the introduction, and, consequently, the organization of the paper.  This is a natural part of paper revision.  So, the introduction should not be treated as though it were written in stone.  In early drafts, the introduction should serve as a provisional source of constraint for organizing one’s thoughts about the topic.  As one’s thoughts evolve, the introduction can be rewritten, and the paper reorganized, to reflect this.  But beginning with an introduction that specifies the organization of the paper in substantial detail serves as an important constraint on one’s writing and thinking, insuring that one’s topic is investigated systematically.

1. Plain Language for a Non-Specialist Audience: Much canonical philosophy is opaque and difficult to understand for the novice.  A common reaction to this in undergraduate writing is the use of obscure “academic-sounding” language, of which students have only minimal mastery, in an attempt to sound intelligent and equal to the task of explaining and criticizing canonical philosophical arguments.  This must be avoided at all costs.  Good philosophy papers must employ clear,  plain  language, in short sentences and short, well-organized paragraphs.  It is impossible to evaluate the cogency of arguments unless they are expressed in terms that are easily understood.  Students must not assume that instructors know in what senses they intend esoteric, philosophical vocabulary, nor what lessons they have drawn from the sources they have been reading.  Unless a student can express and defend claims using words with which they, and any educated layperson are familiar, it is doubtful that they fully understand these claims.  Students should write for an imagined audience composed of family members, friends and acquaintances.  They should use words that any educated, non-specialist would understand in order to explain the more opaque canonical arguments their papers discuss, and in order to formulate their own responses to these arguments.  This attitude both insures that the language students use is clear and precise, and shows the instructor the degree to which students have understood the more opaque canonical arguments they discuss.

2. Illustration with Examples: One of the most important components of a good undergraduate philosophy paper is the copious use of concrete, everyday examples to illustrate abstract and sometimes obscure philosophical points.  For example, the claim that a moving object must be put in motion by a different object already in motion is one of the key assumptions of Aquinas’s first argument for the existence of God.  But this is a fairly abstract and potentially confusing way of expressing a familiar fact.  Such abstract and potentially obscure means of expression are inevitable in philosophy because philosophers aim to defend maximally general conclusions: claims that are true in all circumstances, everywhere and always.  In order to defend such general claims, familiar observations must be couched in the most general terms possible, and this often invites obscurity.  Undergraduate philosophical writers must clarify such potentially confusing language by appeal to concrete, everyday examples.

For example, Aquinas’ claim about the causes of motion is actually a claim about the causes of  any  change in any object, including what we typically call “motion,” like a rolling ball, and other changes, like the rising temperature in a heated pan of water.  A student should make this clear by illustrating Aquinas’s claim with such everyday examples.  For example, one might write something like, “Aquinas claims that every moving or changing object is caused to move or change by a different object that is already in motion or changing.  For example, a rolling ball is caused to move by a kick from a swinging foot, or a boiling pan of water is caused to boil by a flame giving off heat.”  Such illustration of abstract philosophical principles with concrete, everyday examples serves two extremely important functions.  First, it makes one’s exposition and evaluation of others’ arguments clear and tangible for the reader.  Second, it shows one’s instructor that one has understood obscure yet crucial philosophical assumptions in one’s own terms.

3. The Principle of Charity: The point of any work of philosophy, from the most canonical treatise to the humblest undergraduate effort, is to determine which claims are supported by the best reasons.  The point is not to persuade some particular audience of some claim using rhetoric.  Philosophers always aim at identifying the best possible reasons to believe some claim.  For this reason, when criticizing the arguments of others, philosophical writers should adhere to a principle of extreme charity.  They should interpret arguments with which they disagree in the most favorable terms possible.  Only then can they be sure that they have done their utmost to identify the truth of the matter.  Criticism is inevitable in an undergraduate philosophy paper.  In order to responsibly defend some conclusion, the student must give a thorough overview of what others have said about it, criticizing those with whom she disagrees.  But students must bend over backwards to insure that these criticisms are fair.  Since her goal is to arrive at the truth of the matter, a student author must not stack the deck against those with whom she disagrees.  She must empathize with her antagonists; appreciating as deeply as possible the reasons why they disagree with the conclusion she defends.  This puts the student author in a position to criticize those with whom she disagrees fairly and responsibly.

Consider, once more, Aquinas’s First Way to prove the existence of God.  It is relatively easy to criticize this argument by appeal to modern physics.  Aquinas assumes that every object in motion must have been put into motion by another object already in motion.  But he was working with pre-Newtonian physics.  According to post-Newtonian physics, an object can be in uniform motion without being acted upon by an outside force.  So, technically, Aquinas’s premise is false.  However, this is a nit-picky point that is unfair to Aquinas, and misses the spirit of his argument.  Aquinas’s argument from motion can easily be rephrased as an argument from acceleration to make it compatible with post-Newtonian physics.  Even if uniform motion does not require an external force, acceleration does, and once Aquinas’ premise is rephrased to respect this, the rest of the argument proceeds as before.  Anyone seeking to criticize Aquinas’s argument is well served by considering the most charitable possible interpretation.  If fatal flaws remain even after one has bent over backwards to accommodate Aquinas’s ignorance of later developments in physics, etc., one’s critique of his argument is more effective.

4. Self-Criticism: There is another implication of the philosopher’s commitment to discovering the claims that are supported by the best reasons, as opposed to just winning arguments.  Works of philosophy must include self-criticism.  The responsible philosophical author is always cognizant of potential pitfalls in her own arguments, and possible responses by antagonists she criticizes.  In the course of criticizing an opposing view on some matter, a philosophical writer must always consider how her target might respond.  In the course of defending some claim, a philosophical writer must always anticipate and respond to possible objections.  Papers by professional philosophers often include whole sections devoted entirely to possible objections to the theses they defend.  It is a good idea for undergraduate philosophical writers to follow this example: often, it is useful for the penultimate section of a paper to address possible criticisms of or responses to the arguments provided earlier in the paper.  Not only does this constitute a fair and responsible way of writing philosophy, it helps the student think about her own views critically, improving the final product.

5. Undermining an Argument Vs. Criticizing a Conclusion: Suppose I raise some insurmountable problems for Aquinas’s first argument for the existence of God.  It is important to keep in mind that this is not the same as arguing against the existence of God.  Just because one argument for the existence of God fails, does not mean that there are not other arguments for the existence of God that succeed.  Students should not think that criticizing an argument requires disagreeing with its conclusion.  Some of the greatest critics of certain arguments for the existence of God were themselves theists.  In fact, if you agree with the conclusion of a bad argument, it makes sense to criticize the argument, showing where it is weak; this can help you construct an alternative argument that avoids this problem.    Criticizing an argument is never the same as arguing against its conclusion.  To criticize an argument is to show that its premises do not provide adequate support for its conclusion, not to show that its conclusion is false.  In order to do the latter, one must provide a new argument that supports the claim that the conclusion is false.  For example, in order to show that God does not exist, it is not enough to show that no arguments for God’s existence are sound; one must also provide positive reasons to deny God’s existence.

An analogy to criminal trials makes this distinction clear.  The goal of the prosecution in a criminal trial is to prove that the defendant is guilty.  They must construct an argument that provides good reasons for this conclusion.  However, the goal of the defense in a criminal trial is  not  to prove that the defendant is innocent.  Rather, the defense aims to criticize the prosecution’s argument, to show that the reasons provided by the prosecution for the conclusion that the defendant is guilty are not strong enough to support this conclusion, because there remains a reasonable doubt that this conclusion is true.  The difference between the tasks of the prosecution and the defense in a criminal trial parallels the distinction between arguing against (or for) a conclusion, and merely criticizing an argument for a conclusion.  Students should keep this distinction in mind when writing philosophy papers.  When they are defending any conclusion, e.g., that God exists or that God does not exist, they must provide arguments for this conclusion, much as the prosecution must provide evidence and reasons that prove the defendant guilty.  When students are criticizing an argument, they are not defending the denial of the argument’s conclusion.  Rather, like the defense in a criminal trial, they are merely undermining the reasons given for the conclusion.

6. References: Undergraduate philosophy papers must be grounded in relevant and reputable philosophical literature.  Attributing claims to others, including canonical philosophers or discussions of them in the secondary literature, must be supported by references to appropriate sources.  However, direct quotation should, on balance, be avoided.  Instructors are interested in whether or not students understand difficult philosophical concepts and claims in their own terms.  For this reason, paraphrase is usually the best way to cite a source.  Using one’s own words to express a point one has read elsewhere, however, does not excuse one from referring to one’s source.  Any time a substantial claim is attributed to another person, whether or not one uses the person’s own words, the source should be referenced.  There are occasions when direct quotations are appropriate, for example, when one is defending a controversial interpretation of some philosopher’s argument, and the precise wording of her claims is important.

It is important for a student author to get a sense of what the recent philosophical conversation about a specific topic has been.  Otherwise, she has no way of knowing how to contribute to it. There are many ways for a student to explore the philosophical literature relevant to a topic she has chosen.  It is advisable to begin with readings assigned for class.  Textbooks, most recent philosophical journal articles, and recent secondary literature usually include detailed lists of references, which provide a useful guide to the relevant literature.  Works cited in multiple places are particularly good sources for students to consult. The Philosopher’s Index and the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are good on-line starting points for exploring the philosophical literature. These sources provide references to recent articles written about most philosophical topics.  Students may also want to explore less specialized internet-based resources, like Google Scholar.  However, one must be careful with on-line content.  Many web-based resources are not subject to appropriate professional review, and are therefore unreliable. Students must insure that the claims they make are supported by recent, reputable philosophical literature.  Simply asking one’s instructor can assuage any worries about whether or not a paper draft meets this standard.

As for citation format, philosophers are generally flexible: some journals require Chicago Style formatting, while others require MLA style.  Most instructors will accept any style as long as it is used correctly and consistently.  So students should consult their instructors about which citation format to follow.  Non-standard sources like websites and lecture notes should also be cited in a format that instructors approve.

7. The First Person Pronoun: In high school composition classes, students are often taught to avoid using the first-person pronoun, “I”.  The reasoning behind this is that use of “I” tends to encourage the expression of subjective opinions, whereas the goal of much essay writing is to provide an objective defense of some thesis.  However, this rule of thumb is an overly blunt instrument.  Certain uses of the “I” are typical of academic, philosophical writing.  For example, authors often express their plans for a paper, e.g., the thesis they intend to defend, using the first-person pronoun, as I did in the sample introduction provided above.  As long as the “I” is used in the context of laying out one’s intended plan for the paper, or circumscribing the scope of one’s claims, it is entirely appropriate.  For example, it is entirely legitimate to write, “In the following,  I  defend Aquinas’s Fifth Way to prove the existence of God against a common criticism.  However, space limitations preclude  me  from considering every version of this criticism, so  I  focus exclusively on Hume’s.”  The spirit behind the “anti-‘I’” rule must, however, be respected.  Students must avoid expressing subjective opinions.  Expressions like “I feel that …”, or “It seems to me that …”, or “In my experience…” should be avoided.  The point of a philosophy paper is to defend a thesis by appeal to objective reasons, that is, reasons that  any  reasonable person should accept.

8. The Present Tense: Another stylistic feature that is typical of philosophical writing is the almost exclusive use of the present tense.  Tense consistency is often a challenge for undergraduate writers: often past, present, and future tenses are used within the same sentence or paragraph.  This must be avoided.  In philosophy papers, the rule of thumb is: always use the present tense, even when discussing arguments proposed by philosophers in the past.  The fact that some argument, for the existence of God for example, was first proposed in the past is irrelevant for philosophical purposes.  Arguments are treated as timeless contributions to the philosophical conversation, and students should treat canonical arguments as though they still constitute persuasive reasons for believing some claim.  Thus, in the introduction provided as an example above, I write, “Aquinas, famously,  provides  five arguments for the existence of God.”  The present tense should always be used when explaining any philosopher’s argument, any reason he or she provides for accepting some conclusion.  This simple rule also insures tense consistency.  In the rare circumstance in which some kind of historical context must be provided, e.g., a discussion of Descartes’ education by Jesuits, the past tense may be appropriate.  But such circumstances are exceptional because philosophy papers focus on the timeless arguments that have been provided in defense of claims that are still controversial, not on the historical details or biographies that led particular philosophers to formulate these arguments.

9. Repeating Words vs. Using Synonyms: Another rule-of-thumb often promulgated in high school composition classes prescribes the use of synonyms over repetition of the same word.  The motivation for this is clear: when students are forced to avoid repeating words, they must search for synonyms and this helps expand their vocabulary.  However, by the time a student enrolls in a University-level philosophy course, her vocabulary should be sufficiently developed.  Philosophy instructors value  clarity  and  precision  far above conspicuous displays of vocabulary.  This is because, as we saw above, the soundness of an argument often depends on the precise meanings of the terms with which it is expressed.  The meanings of so-called “synonyms” often vary in very subtle, nuanced ways.  And these variations in meaning are often very significant in the context of philosophical arguments.  Consider for example the words “liberty” and “freedom”.  In some contexts, these words are interchangeable; they constitute synonyms.  However, there are many philosophical contexts in which these words are not interchangeable.  For example, the question of whether or not our decisions are free, or determined by our genetic endowment and environmental influences is a perennial philosophical puzzle.  However, “freedom of the will” cannot be paraphrased as “liberty of the will”.  The reason is that “liberty” has certain connotations which restrict its use to political contexts, while “freedom” can be used to characterize both political freedom, and freedom from natural constraints, like one’s genetic endowment, as well.  Substituting the word “freedom” with the word “liberty” in a philosophy paper would only compromise clarity: the reader would not know whether freedom from political or from natural constraints was at issue.  For this reason, it is best to repeat precisely the same terms for the same key concepts throughout a philosophy paper.  

3. Strategies for Choosing a Topic and Formulating Arguments

Philosophical creativity and imagination, like their scientific or artistic counterparts, are mysterious.  It is difficult to formulate rules for coming up with topics and arguments for philosophy papers.  Different individuals will succeed at this task in different ways.  Here, I discuss three broad strategies for conceiving and composing an undergraduate philosophy paper; however, this list is not meant to be exhaustive.  Philosophy papers can be characterized as (1) narrow focus papers, (2) broad focus papers, and (3) application papers.

Narrow Focus Papers

The narrow focus strategy is perhaps the most straightforward strategy for composing a philosophy paper.  The point of such a paper is to focus as much as possible on a specific argument by a specific philosopher and to discuss the strengths and weakness of this specific argument.  One begins by correctly explaining the target argument.  Then one raises objections, either by showing that one or more of the premises is false or implausible, or by showing that the premises, even if true, fail to support the conclusion.  One then considers how the author of argument might respond to these criticisms, and ends by replying to these responses.  In the course of writing such a focused, critical analysis, the student should include a survey of other criticisms that have been raised, and make clear how her criticism is unique.

Such papers can be extremely narrow.  For example, they might focus on just one premise, or sub-argument of a larger argument.  The introduction provided as an example above focuses just on Aquinas’ argument that there can be no causal chains extending infinitely into the past.  The focus is on just one crucial sub-argument of one of Aquinas’s five arguments for the existence of God.  Another possibility is to look at some historical debate about a particular premise of some canonical argument, and contribute to it.  For example, one might consider one objection of an early critic of Aquinas’s arguments, imagine how Aquinas might reply to this objection, and then raise an improved objection of one’s own, for which this reply does not work.  Or one might look at a classic criticism of some premise Aquinas uses in an argument, and offer a novel response on behalf of Aquinas.

Another kind of narrow focus paper concerns philosophical definitions.  One of the principal projects of canonical philosophy, since Plato, has been the attempt to define philosophically important concepts, such as TRUTH, JUSTICE, and KNOWLEDGE.  This has given rise to an important kind of philosophical debate.  Philosophical definitions provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as an example of some concept.  For example, one classical definition of knowledge states that for a person to know some claim, the person must believe the claim; she must have good reasons for believing it, and the claim must be true.  This definition claims that belief, truth and justification are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for knowledge.  However, one of the classic papers of Twentieth Century philosophy raises a counterexample to this definition: an example of a justified true belief that, intuitively, should not count as knowledge.  This counterexample shows that belief, truth and justification are not sufficient for knowledge, contrary to the classical definition.  This has spawned a cottage industry, involving attempts to modify the definition of knowledge to accommodate the counterexample, followed by new counterexamples to these new definitions.  Such give-and-take about the meanings of important philosophical concepts is typical of much academic philosophy.  It also constitutes a great strategy for composing a narrow focus, undergraduate philosophy paper: identify some classic philosophical definition of a philosophically important concept, raise a counter-example to the definition, and then consider ways the definition might be modified to accommodate the counter-example.  This cycle can be repeated through numerous iterations, including new counter-examples to new definitions, followed by newer definitions accommodating these counter-examples, etc.

Narrow focus papers are mainly critical: they aim to undermine particular arguments, assumptions, or definitions proposed by specific philosophers.  For this reason, it is useful for a student writing a narrow focus paper to think of her role as analogous to that of a defense attorney in a criminal trial.  Her goal is not to prove that the conclusion to some argument is false.  Rather, her role is to show that the reasons some philosopher has provided for a specific conclusion are insufficient to establish that conclusion.

Broad Focus Papers

Unlike narrow focus papers, broad focus papers do not restrict their scope to particular arguments, assumptions, or definitions made by particular philosophers.  Instead, such papers identify a broad topic that has been discussed by many philosophers throughout history, identify different positions that have been taken on this topic, sketch the different kinds of arguments that have been provided for these different positions, and then take a stand on the topic by defending one of these arguments as superior to the others, or providing a new argument.  For example, rather than focusing on just one assumption in one of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God, a student may choose to treat the question of the existence of God more broadly, sketching the different positions on this topic, and some of the classical arguments that support them.  The student may then defend theism or atheism by offering an improved version of one of these arguments that avoids some of the classic criticisms of it, or by providing an argument of her own.

Broad focus papers are, in general, more challenging than narrow focus papers.  Undergraduates are rarely asked to draft papers longer than 15 pages.  However, it is extremely difficult to do justice to a broad topic in philosophy in so little space.  Philosophical questions and claims tend to ramify: they tend to open cans of worms – other questions and claims that are equally if not more difficult to resolve.  For this reason, the best advice for undergraduate philosophical writing is to focus on as narrow a topic as possible.  It is possible to write a decent broad focus undergraduate paper.  However, it is very difficult, and students who focus as much as possible on specific claims and arguments make life much easier for themselves.

Application Papers

Perhaps the most interesting strategy for composing an undergraduate philosophy paper – the strategy that allows the most scope for individual creativity – is to illustrate some philosophical concept, claim or argument with a concrete example drawn from art, film, fiction, popular culture, science, or one’s own experience.  For example, a classic dispute in epistemology – the philosophical study of knowledge – concerns our justification for believing the testimony of others.  On one view, this justification is derived from our own observation that people are, for the most part, reliable.  On the opposing view, trusting testimony is justified in itself, not in virtue of observing that people are typically reliable.  A classic argument for this opposing view is that young children could never learn anything from adults if they had to wait to observe that people tend to be reliable before trusting their testimony.  This argument makes substantial assumptions about how young children learn.  It therefore suggests an interesting topic for an application paper: see whether the latest literature in developmental psychology supports this assumption.

Often, showing how some common experience, drawn from everyday life, fiction, film, or popular culture, illustrates some philosophical principle, argument, or claim is very useful.  Not only does this help clarify the philosophical principle, argument, or claim; if the common experience is sufficiently vivid and compelling, it might even provide some support for the philosophical principle, argument, or claim.  For example, consider the classical philosophical definition of knowledge mentioned above, in the discussion about philosophical definitions.  According to this definition, a person knows some claim just in case she believes it; she is justified in believing it, and it is true.  The counterexamples that philosophers have raised to this definition have been fairly abstract and contrived.  However, it is possible to illustrate the problems with the definition by more plausible, real world examples.  For example, consider the claim that the sun moves.  We know this to be true today.  But what about people who lived prior to Copernicus?  Copernicus proposed that, contrary to the assumptions of astronomers that lived before him, the earth moves around the sun rather than vice versa.  So pre-Copernican astronomers believed that the sun moves around the earth.  This means that they also believed that the sun moves.  Since we know the sun moves, this belief of theirs was true.  Furthermore, they had good reasons for this belief, and were therefore justified in believing that the sun moves.  Copernicus had not yet formulated an alternative hypothesis and all the evidence seemed to support their view.  So pre-Copernican astronomers had a true justified belief that the sun moves.  But, arguably, they did not know this, since the reason they thought the sun moves – that it circles the earth – is not the true reason it moves – that, like any star, it is caught up in the motion of the galaxy of which it is a part.  This concrete historical example illustrates what is wrong with the classical definition of knowledge.

Working through such a concrete example from the history of science not only clarifies a philosophical point, it also provides some support for this point by showing that it is easily illustrated with concrete examples from the history of human knowledge.  Furthermore, it immediately suggests how a paper focused on this example can be further extended.  For example, one might imagine how a defender of the classical definition of knowledge would reinterpret this case in a way that vindicates the classical definition.  One could then respond to this reinterpretation.  In general, application papers can be based on very clear and simple argumentative structures: they argue that some concrete example illustrates a philosophical thesis, and then they consider how those who deny the thesis might deal with the example.  

4. A Short Primer on Logic

As we saw above, in section 2, although philosophical arguments can go wrong in two ways – either the premises are false or implausible, or they fail to support the conclusion – philosophers tend to focus on detecting and avoiding failures of the latter kind.  Here, I provide a short primer on the various ways that premises in philosophical arguments succeed and fail to support their conclusions.

Kinds of Support

There are broadly two kinds of support that premises provide for conclusions of arguments.  First, in  deductively valid  arguments, the premises  guarantee  the conclusion, i.e., if we assume the premises are true, we cannot, at the same time, deny the conclusion.  Here is a classic example: All humans are mortal.  Socrates is a human.  Therefore, Socrates is mortal.  If we accept the premises, we cannot, at the same time, deny the conclusion.  So, this is the strongest kind of support that premises can provide for a conclusion.  Notice that, when determining whether or not an argument is deductively valid, it is not necessary to establish whether or not the premises are true.  Validity is a matter of the support the premises provide the conclusion, not their truth.  The question is: if the premises were true, would the conclusion also have to be true?  So, for example, the following argument is deductively valid, despite its questionable premises:  All George Washington University students are Dalmatian.  Barack Obama is a George Washington University student.  Therefore, Barack Obama is Dalmatian.  Note that this argument has the same logical form as the previous argument about Socrates: “humans” has been substituted with “George Washington University students”; “mortal” has been substituted with “Dalmatian”, and “Socrates” has been substituted with “Barack Obama”.  Despite the fact that the second argument’s premises and conclusion are false, it is a deductively valid argument because the premises guarantee the conclusion.  That is,  if  the premises were true, the conclusion would also have to be true.

In deductively valid arguments, the premises supply the strongest possible support for the conclusion.  One can refute an argument claiming to be deductively valid by showing that even if the premises were true, the conclusion could still be false, i.e., there is still at least a slight probability that the premises are true and the conclusion is false.  For example, the following argument, though plausible, is not deductively valid: Every morning I’ve lived, the sun has risen.  Therefore, tomorrow morning, the sun will rise.  As we’ll see next, this is an inductively strong argument: the premise provides strong support for the conclusion.  But the argument is not deductively valid because the premise does not  guarantee  the conclusion: it is possible that the premise is true but the conclusion is false, e.g., if the sun explodes tonight, it won’t rise tomorrow morning.

The second kind of support that premises can provide conclusions is evident in  inductively strong  arguments.  In such arguments, though the premises do not guarantee the conclusion, as they do in deductively valid arguments, they  make the conclusion more likely .  Such arguments are common in science and politics.  Most arguments in which the conclusion is based on a public opinion poll are inductive arguments.  For example, suppose you do a blind taste test comparing Coke to Pepsi with 5% of the GWU student population, finding that 60% of this sample prefers Coke to Pepsi.  If you then generalize, concluding that 60% of the GWU student population prefers Coke to Pepsi, you are making an inductive argument: the premise is the result of the poll, and the conclusion is the generalization from the 5% sample to the whole GWU student population.  The strength of the support this premise provides this conclusion depends on the size of the sample, and how it is obtained.  Sometimes, for example, such arguments rely on samples that are not obtained randomly, and therefore contain biases relative to the population to which they generalize.  This is one way of criticizing an inductive argument: if the sample is biased, the argument is inductively weak.

In another sort of inductive argument, the premises express certain observations that need to be explained, while the conclusion is a plausible explanation of those observations.  Such forms of inductive argument are common in criminal trials.  The prosecution presents the jury with facts, e.g., the defendant’s alleged motives, her presence at the crime scene at around the estimated time of the crime as testified to by a reliable witness, etc.  They then conclude that the best explanation of all these facts is that the defendant committed the crime of which she is accused.  However, such premises never guarantee the conclusion, since there may always be alternative explanations for the evidence.  The defendant may have been at the crime scene by coincidence, or the witness may be lying, or the prosecution may be trying to frame the defendant, etc.  This is why, in such arguments, the premises never guarantee the conclusion, as they do in deductively valid arguments.  At best, they provide defeasibly strong reasons to accept the explanation that constitutes the conclusion.  But such arguments can always be criticized by providing an alternative explanation of the evidence that is just as good or better.

A classic philosophical argument of this type is the argument for the claim that nature is the product of intelligent design. Proponents of this argument begin with a list of facts about nature, e.g., that it is orderly, complex, goal-directed, and dependent on highly unlikely background conditions.  They then argue that the best explanation for these facts is that nature was designed by a supernatural intelligence.  However, as with the case of arguments made in court, these facts do not guarantee this conclusion.  There may be alternative explanations of these facts that are just as good or better.  For example, Darwin argues that many such facts can be explained by his theory of evolution by natural selection, with no appeal to intelligent design.

Argument types in which the premises do not support the conclusion are called “fallacies”.  Philosophers have studied the ways that arguments can go wrong for millennia, and they have identified dozens of fallacies.  Here are five common fallacies that it is useful to keep in mind when evaluating or formulating arguments in a philosophy paper.

  • Begging the Question: Arguments that commit this fallacy are also known as circular arguments.  Such arguments assume what they are trying to prove.  Recall that the point of philosophical, and, indeed, any argumentation, is to try to prove a controversial conclusion on the basis of less controversial premises.  For example, as we saw above, Aquinas tries to prove the controversial claim that God exists on the basis of uncontroversial premises, like the claim that objects are in motion.  But sometimes the premises of an argument are equally or more controversial than the conclusion.  In fact, sometimes the premises of an argument covertly assume the conclusion they are trying to prove.  Consider the following argument for the existence of God, for example.  “God wrote the Bible.  Therefore, everything the Bible says is true.  The Bible says God exists.  Therefore, God exists.”  This argument is circular, or begs the question, because it assumes what it is trying to prove.  For God to write the Bible, he has to exist.  So, in this argument, the premises provide no independent justification for the conclusion: they are just as controversial as the conclusion because they covertly assume the conclusion’s truth.
  • False Alternatives: Arguments that commit this fallacy rely on at least one premise that claims that there are fewer alternatives than there actually are.  Consider the following example: “Either France supports the United States or France supports the terrorists.  France does not support the United States.  Therefore, France supports the terrorists.”  This argument is fallacious because the first premise is a false alternative.  France might not support either the United States or the terrorists.
  • Unjustified Appeal to Authority: Arguments that commit this fallacy rely on premises that appeal to an authority with no justification.  Consider the following example: “There are passages in the Bible that prohibit homosexuality.  Therefore, homosexuality is immoral.”  The conclusion is not supported by the premise because the argument fails to establish that the Bible is a legitimate authority on moral matters.
  • Ad Hominem: The name of this fallacy is a Latin term meaning the same as “to (or against) the man”.  Such fallacies are often committed in the course of critiquing another argument.  For example, suppose an Evangelical Christian has just finished arguing that abortion is immoral, and a critic responds not by identifying any weaknesses in the argument but, rather, by pointing out the arguer’s religious beliefs as a reason for dismissing the argument.  The critic may say something like, “Clearly we cannot accept the reasoning of someone with such superstitious convictions!”  This is an example of the Ad Hominem fallacy: instead of criticizing the argument, the critic is attacking the person who presents the argument.  In logic and philosophy, we are interested in whether or not the premises of an argument support its conclusion.  The identity of the person making the argument is irrelevant to this.  People with whom one disagrees on many matters can nonetheless produce sound arguments.  A person’s personal convictions or personality are irrelevant to the strength of her arguments.
  • Straw Man: This is another fallacy that often arises in the course of criticizing someone else’s argument.  It occurs when the critic misrepresents the argument she is criticizing, formulating a version of it that is easier to refute.  This is where the fallacy gets its name: a “straw man” is easier to knock down than a “real man”.  Consider the following example.  Suppose a person defends abortion rights on the grounds that no law regulating a person’s control over her own reproductive decisions is equitably enforceable.  If someone were to criticize this argument on the grounds that (1) it claims killing a fetus is morally unobjectionable, and (2) this assumption is false, then the critic would be guilty of a Straw Man fallacy.  The argument makes no claims about whether or not killing a fetus is morally unobjectionable.  The critic has burdened her target with a difficult to defend assumption that she never made.  In terms discussed above, such a critic does not respect the principle of charity that guides all good philosophical writing.  Philosophical writers have an obligation to present their antagonists’ arguments in as favorable a light as possible before criticizing them.  Only then can they be sure that they are seeking to establish claims that are supported by the best reasons, rather than merely scoring rhetorical points.  

Undergraduate philosophical writing is about evaluating and constructing arguments.  A good argument is one in which strong reasons are provided in support of some claim.  In order to evaluate and construct arguments, the claims that comprise them must be expressed in clear and precise language.  In addition, these claims must be perspicuously organized, such that the complex relations of support they bear to each other are apparent to any educated reader.  The goal of philosophical writing should be discovering which claims are supported by the best reasons, not scoring cheap rhetorical points.  For this reason, philosophical writing must be guided by a principle of extreme charity: views antagonistic to the author’s must be considered carefully and fairly, and presented with the utmost sympathy.  The author must anticipate likely criticisms of her own views and respond to them.  Undergraduate philosophical writers must master the art of conveying abstruse philosophical concepts in clear, plain language, writing for an imagined audience of educated non-specialists, like family and friends.  This makes undergraduate writing clearer, and demonstrates to the instructor that the student has understood difficult concepts in her own terms.  The use, as much as possible, of concrete examples to illustrate abstract philosophical concepts is strongly recommended.

Finally, the best undergraduate philosophy papers focus on relatively narrow and specific topics, e.g., a specific argument or assumption made by a specific philosopher.  One cannot establish an ambitious philosophical claim in the 10-15 pages usually allotted for undergraduate philosophy papers.  Thousands of years and pages have been devoted to determining whether or not God exists, for example.  Yet the question remains controversial.  Do not assume that you can accomplish, in 10-15 pages, something that professional philosophers have failed to accomplish in thousands of years.  Philosophical arguments tend to open cans of worms because they invariably make assumptions or raise difficult issues that go beyond the topic on which they focus.  The art of writing philosophy consists in avoiding such potential digressions, and contributing to specific, constrained debates.

The foregoing is a good guide to composing an initial rough draft of a term paper for an undergraduate philosophy class.  Different instructors might not agree with all of my recommendations; however, most will agree with most of them.  Once a student receives feedback from her instructor on a rough draft, she will be able to fine-tune the paper to the instructor’s particular preferences.  Although the foregoing should help students make a good start on a philosophy paper, there is no substitute for frequent consultation with one’s instructor.  Do not fear “bothering” your instructors about helping with paper drafts.  As long as you follow the relevant instructions on their syllabi and give them plenty of time, they are obligated to help you with your writing.  The persistent pursuit of detailed feedback from one’s instructor is the best resource you have for succeeding at undergraduate philosophical writing.  This guide provides a solid foundation from which to start.

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Writing a Philosophy Essay

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Is there a God? Are there objective, universal moral norms or rules? What is meant by ‘reality’? Do we have free will? In studying philosophy, students aim to do the following:

  • understand such philosophical questions and the concepts, arguments, and theories that philosophers use to address them
  • think critically about such arguments and theories
  • develop their own answers to philosophical questions

Writing philosophy essays is a key part of studying philosophy. Make sure first to understand the assignment, looking out for the questions asked and paying attention to prompts such as “outline” or “evaluate” or “compare”. Most philosophy assignments will ask you to demonstrate your understanding of the subject through exposition of arguments and theories, and many will also test your ability to assess these arguments and theories by writing a critical evaluation of them. Write your paper so that the reader understands how your exposition and evaluation answer the questions and address all parts of the assignment.

Read the Texts Carefully, Asking Questions

Before you write a paper, though, you need to understand the course texts and recommended readings. Philosophical works need to be read slowly and with focused attention. As you read, ask yourself the following:

  • What philosophical question(s) is the author addressing?
  • What exactly is meant by key ideas or concepts in the text (e.g., Plato’s “Forms”, Aristotle’s “substance” and “accident”, Kant’s “categorical imperative,” Sartre’s “being-for-itself”)? Each discipline has its own technical language, which students must learn.
  • What arguments does the author make (e.g., Aquinas’s five arguments for the existence of God)?
  • What theories does the author propose (e.g., a dualist mind-body theory or—one of its competitors—a physicalist theory of mind)?

Organize Your Ideas into a Logical Structure

Take notes as you read. Then put your ideas for the essay into a logical order. Because philosophy papers proceed by logical argument, creating a point-form outline that captures the structure of your argument is generally a good strategy. An outline will allow you to spot problems in your argument more easily.

Augment Your Thesis with a Road Map that Reveals the Structure of Your Argument

Most assignments will require you to present a clear thesis statement that sums up the position for which you are arguing. In the introduction you should also provide a ‘road map’—a few sentences that announce in sequence what you intend to accomplish in each of the key stages of your paper. Road maps often rely on first person (“First, I will analyze . . . “), but if your professor prefers that you don’t use the first person, you can instead describe what your essay will accomplish (“First, the essay will analyze . . . “).

Show Your Understanding through Clear and Accurate Exposition

Try to make your expository writing as clear and accurate as possible, and try to show the logical connections between the different parts of a philosophical system. Avoid vague or overly brief exposition, serious omissions, or misunderstandings.

In some first year courses, an early assignment may ask you to write a short paper expounding but not evaluating a concept or theory. For example: “Explain what Plato means by Forms.” Subsequent assignments in the course usually involve evaluation as well as exposition (e.g., “Outline and evaluate Plato’s theory of Forms”). In some courses, assignments may call for detailed interpretation of a text rather than an assessment of it. “Was Hume an idealist?”, “Was Wittgenstein a behaviourist?” and “Was Marx a nihilist about morality?” are examples. Such questions are posed when there is disagreement among scholars about how to interpret a philosopher. In such essays, you will need to examine texts very closely, find passages which support a yes or no answer, choose where you stand in the debate, and defend your answer.

Critically Evaluate a Philosophical Theory

When studying a philosophical theory, you will need to think about both its strengths and weaknesses. For example, is a particular theory of art (such as the view that art is the expression of emotion) comprehensive: does it apply to all the arts and all types of art, or only to some? Is it logically consistent or does it contain contradictions? Are there counterexamples to it?

As you think about your topic, read the course materials, and take notes, you should work out and assemble the following:

  • the strengths of a philosopher’s theory
  • the arguments the philosopher gives in support of the theory and those the philosopher did not provide but which might still support it
  • possible criticisms of those arguments
  • how the philosopher has replied or could reply to these criticisms

Finally, ask yourself how you would evaluate those replies: do they work or not? Be selective, especially in a shorter paper. In a 1,000-word essay, for instance, discuss one or two arguments in favour and one or two against. In a 2,000- or 2,500-word paper, you can include more arguments and possible replies. Finally, plan carefully: leave enough space for your assessment.

A different type of critical evaluation assignment may ask for a comparative appraisal of two or more theories. For example, “Which account of human decision-making is stronger: X’s free will theory or Y’s determinist theory?” In such essays, your thesis could be that one account is better than the other or, perhaps, that neither account is clearly superior. You might argue that each has different strengths and weaknesses.

Develop Your Own Answers to Philosophical Questions

In the type of critical assessments above, you are already, to some extent, articulating your own philosophical positions. As you read texts in a course on, say, philosophy of mind or philosophy of art, you should be asking, based on what you have read so far, which theory is the best? Don’t be content to just understand theories and know their strengths and weaknesses. Push yourself to think out your own account of mind or art.

Some upper-year essay assignments may throw a fundamental philosophical question at you: “What is art?”, “Do we have free will?”, “What is morality?”, or “What is reality?”. Here, you will present your own answer, giving reasons, answering objections, and critically evaluating alternative approaches. Your answer/thesis might be an existing theory or a synthesis of two or more theories, or (more rarely) a completely new theory. Now you are not only expounding theories or critically evaluating them; you are also developing your own philosophy!

You'll be graded on three basic criteria:

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Writing A Philosophy Paper

Copyright © 1993 by Peter Horban Simon Fraser University


  • Lengthy introductions. These are entirely unnecessary and of no interest to the informed reader. There is no need to point out that your topic is an important one, and one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. In fact, I recommend that you think of your paper as not having an introduction at all. Go directly to your topic.
  • Lengthy quotations. Inexperienced writers rely too heavily on quotations and paraphrases. Direct quotation is best restricted to those cases where it is essential to establish another writer's exact selection of words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. After all, it is your paper. It is your thoughts that your instructor is concerned with. Keep that in mind, especially when your essay topic requires you to critically assess someone else's views.
  • Fence sitting. Do not present a number of positions in your paper and then end by saying that you are not qualified to settle the matter. In particular, do not close by saying that philosophers have been divided over this issue for as long as humans have been keeping record and you cannot be expected to resolve the dispute in a few short pages. Your instructor knows that. But you can be expected to take a clear stand based on an evaluation of the argument(s) presented. Go out on a limb. If you have argued well, it will support you.
  • Cuteness. Good philosophical writing usually has an air of simple dignity about it. Your topic is no joke. No writers whose views you have been asked to read are idiots. (If you think they are, then you have not understood them.) Name calling is inappropriate and could never substitute for careful argumentation anyway.
  • Begging the question. You are guilty of begging the question (or circular reasoning) on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it. Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion - the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion - that abortion is morally wrong - will not accept Smith's premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.
  • When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct.


  • Organize carefully. Before you start to write make an outline of how you want to argue. There should be a logical progression of ideas - one that will be easy for the reader to follow. If your paper is well organized, the reader will be led along in what seems a natural way. If you jump about in your essay, the reader will balk. It will take a real effort to follow you, and he or she may feel it not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before you write your first draft. Does it still seem to flow smoothly when you come back to it? If not, the best prose in the world will not be enough to make it work.
  • Use the right words. Once you have determined your outline, you must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. A dictionary is almost essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that "infer" does not mean "imply"; "disinterested" does not mean "uninterested"; and "reference" does not mean either "illusion" or "allusion." Make certain that you can use "its" and "it's" correctly. Notice that certain words such as "therefore," "hence," "since," and "follows from" are strong logical connectives. When you use such expressions you are asserting that certain tight logical relations hold between the claims in question. You had better be right. Finally, check the spelling of any word you are not sure of. There is no excuse for "existance" appearing in any philosophy essay.
  • Support your claims. Assume that your reader is constantly asking such questions as "Why should I accept that?" If you presuppose that he or she is at least mildly skeptical of most of your claims, you are more likely to succeed in writing a paper that argues for a position. Most first attempts at writing philosophy essays fall down on this point. Substantiate your claims whenever there is reason to think that your critics would not grant them.
  • Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give some citation. Indicate your indebtedness, whether it is for specific words, general ideas, or a particular line of argument. To use another writer's words, ideas, or arguments as if they were your own is to plagiarize. Plagiarism is against the rules of academic institutions and is dishonest. It can jeopardize or even terminate your academic career. Why run that risk when your paper is improved (it appears stronger not weaker) if you give credit where credit is due? That is because appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of some of the relevant literature on the subject.
  • Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are going to be reasons which have led some people to reject it. Such reasons will amount to criticisms of your stand. A good way to demonstrate the strength of your position is to consider one or two of the best of these objections and show how they can be overcome. This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies' ammunition before they have a chance to fire it at you. The trick here is to anticipate the kinds of objections that your critics would actually raise against you if you did not disarm them first. The other challenge is to come to grips with the criticisms you have cited. You must argue that these criticisms miss the mark as far as your case is concerned, or that they are in some sense ill-conceived despite their plausibility. It takes considerable practice and exposure to philosophical writing to develop this engaging style of argumentation, but it is worth it.
  • Edit boldly. I have never met a person whose first draft of a paper could not be improved significantly by rewriting. The secret to good writing is rewriting - often. Of course it will not do just to reproduce the same thing again. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts - not because ideas have been left out, but because words have been cut out as ideas have been clarified. Every word that is not needed only clutters. Clear sentences do not just happen. They are the result of tough-minded editing.

There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points. For help in these matters (and we all need reference works in these areas) I recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style , by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser's, On Writing Well . Both of these books have gone through several editions. More advanced students might do well to read Philosophical Writing: An Introduction , by A.P. Martinich. Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. Again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper through without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out. In general terms, do not be content simply to get your paper out of your hands. Take pride in it. Clear writing reflects clear thinking; and that, after all, is what you are really trying to show.


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How to Write a Philosophy Paper: Bridging Minds


Table of contents

  • 1 What is a Philosophy Paper?
  • 2.1 Philosophy Research Paper Introduction
  • 2.2 Body Sections
  • 2.3 Writing a Philosophy Paper Conclusion
  • 3 Template for a Philosophy Essay Structure
  • 4 How to Format a Philosophy Research Paper
  • 5.1 Choose a Topic
  • 5.2 Read the Material and Take Notes
  • 5.3 Think about Your Thesis
  • 5.4 Make an Outline
  • 5.5 Make a First Draft
  • 5.6 Work on the Sections
  • 5.7 Engage with Counterarguments
  • 5.8 Don’t Niglet Citations
  • 5.9 Check Formatting Guidelines.
  • 5.10 Revise and Proofread
  • 6 How to Select the Best Philosophy Essay Topic?
  • 7.1 Argumentative Philosophy Essay Topics
  • 7.2 Plato Essay Topics
  • 7.3 Worldview Essay Topics
  • 7.4 Transcendentalism Essay Topics
  • 7.5 Practical Philosophy Essay Topics
  • 7.6 Enlightenment Essay Topics
  • 8 Let Your Philosophy Paper Shine

As a college student who has decided to take a philosophy course, you may be new to this science. A philosophy assignment may seem hard, and this subject is indeed pretty difficult. You read some text, but what you read is just one level of the text, as you need to think critically and analyze what the author is trying to get across. It also involves a lot of analytical and deep thinking. Thus, it is difficult to do an assignment unless you fully understand the text. Don’t freak out if you have little experience with this subject, as we have prepared a comprehensive guide on how to write a philosophy paper, from which you will know:

  • The essence of philosophy paper, its structure and format
  • Why it is important not to omit the outline stage
  • Practical tips on writing a philosophy research paper.

What is a Philosophy Paper?

A philosophy research paper is an academic work that presents a comprehensive exploration of a specific philosophical question , topic, or thinker. It typically involves the analysis of arguments, the articulation of one’s own positions or perspectives, and the evaluation of philosophical texts and ideas. The primary objective of such a paper is to contribute to the understanding of philosophical issues by critically examining existing views, offering new interpretations, or developing novel arguments. The paper is characterized by rigorous logical reasoning, clear articulation of ideas, and grounding in relevant philosophical literature.

Drafting a philosophy essay begins with appreciating precisely what a philosophy research paper entails. It involves taking a definite position on a philosophical topic and defending that viewpoint with a logical, irrefutable claim. A good research essay generally uses rational arguments to lead readers down a path to a conclusive, hard-to-contradict resolution.


Philosophy Paper Outline Structure

Writing a quality philosophy paper means beginning with a first-rate outline. The best philosophy paper outline is straightforward in its intent, takes up a position, and is uncomplicated in its language. A proper outline makes drafting easier and less time-consuming. Moreover, philosophical writing with a clear-cut outline will lend assurance that your end result is condensed yet enlightening.

After determining a format, you are ready to begin writing out your philosophy paper outline. The first step in this process is to determine how to choose a topic for a paper. Great papers are those that the writer is most interested in. Once your topic has been chosen, your outline can be written with specific details and facts. Said specifics will take your introduction, body, and conclusion through an easy-to-follow guide.

Philosophy Research Paper Introduction

Your research essay should begin with a striking and  attention-grabbing hook . It should identify your topic of focus in some way and ensure that readers have the desire to continue on. The hook is intended to smoothly transition to your thesis statement, which is the claim your thesis is venturing to prove. Your thesis statement should lead readers to  the question of research – the distinct question that will be wholly explained in the body of writing. Finally, your  introduction for the research paper will close with your stance on the question.

Body Sections

The body aspect of a philosophy thesis is considered the meat of any paper. It is hard unless you find someone to  write my philosophy paper for me . This element is where most of the logic behind your stance is contained. Typically, bodies are made up of 3 sections, each explaining the explicit reasoning behind your position. For instance, the first chunk of the body will directly and logically answer the question posed.

In your second body section, use statements that argue why your position is correct. These statements should be informed, prudent, and concise in their reasoning, yet still presented without overly fancy lingo. The explanation of your argument should not be easily opposed. It should also be succinct and without fluff, insulating the explanatory material.

The third portion of the body section should defend your thesis against those that may have counterarguments. This will be the backbone of the essay – the portion that is too hard to refute. By ensuring that criticisms are properly and utterly denounced and the thesis is ratified, philosophical writing will begin to reach its end – the conclusion.

Writing a Philosophy Paper Conclusion

The conclusion is ultimately meant to tie the entire work together in a nice, coherent fashion. It should start with a brief rehash of the body section of your essay. Then, it will move into explaining the importance of the thesis and argument as a whole.  Quality conclusions are ones that will offer a sense of closure.

Template for a Philosophy Essay Structure

A suggested template to help guide you when writing out a philosophy outline is as follows:

Philosophy paper outline

The use of the above outline template is sure to help with the overall drafting procedure of philosophical writing. Understanding the proper use of the outline is ideal for the best end product.

Putting an outline to use makes the process of writing a philosophy paper much more simple. By using an outline to navigate your thoughts as you write, your essay nearly composes itself. The addition of detail to an outline as it is written provides pronounced facts and a full outline. Take the outline chock full of thoughts and ideas, add words and transitions, and you have a complete paper.

How to Format a Philosophy Research Paper

Formatting a philosophy paper starts with choosing a citation style . The choice between APA, MLA, and Chicago styles simply lay out citations in contrasting manners for your philosophical writing. Each of these styles requires a differing method of citing sources and varying types of organization. Most commonly, philosophy research paper citations are done in MLA or Chicago. While both are accepted, it may be best to choose which your supervisor requires.

Luckily, you can  APA research papers for sale and forget about this stress.

10 Steps to Write a Great Philosophy Paper Like a Pro

Learning how to write a philosophy research paper outline is a skill that can be carried over to numerous other subjects. While philosophical writing is a bit different than most other topics of discussion, the outline can be applied to others fairly easily. Proper utilization of outlines makes for a well-thought-out and structured thesis work that a writer can be proud of.

Choose a Topic

One of the primary steps is choosing a topic, and that is the first thing college students get stuck on. If you can not choose a topic you are interested in, talk to your university professor. You can also take a look at different lists of ideas on the Internet.

Read the Material and Take Notes

Read all materials carefully and take notes of important ideas. It is a good idea to read the material a couple of times as there will always be something you don’t notice at first. It is important to have a clear understanding of what you read to nail your assignment. If you feel like you don’t understand anything, then Google ‘ write my philosophy paper for me ’ and get help from real professionals.

Think about Your Thesis

Before you start writing, realize what you are going to show. Your work should have a strong thesis that states your position. The central component of the work is a clear thesis statement followed by supporting claims.

Make an Outline

An outline should include your ideas for the introduction, your thesis, main points, and conclusion. Having a philosophy paper outline before working on the assignment can help you stay focused and ensure you include all major points.

Make a First Draft

Don’t worry about perfection at this stage. Instead, focus on getting your ideas on paper. Following your outline, start building your arguments. Make sure to provide evidence or reasons for your claims.

Work on the Sections

Introduction: An introduction for a research paper is an essential part of any assignment because it gives your readers an overview of your work. It is your opportunity to grab their attention, so take this step seriously. Remember the thesis statement? You should present it here.

Main body: In this part, you need to present arguments and support your thesis. Start with providing a clear explanation of the philosopher’s ideas and move to the evaluation. Support your thesis by using examples.

Conclusion: A conclusion for any research paper is where you restate your central thesis. It should look like a mirror image of the introduction. Here you need to summarize the major points of your work.

Engage with Counterarguments

A good philosophy paper acknowledges opposing views. Make sure to address these counterarguments and provide reasons for why you believe your stance is more compelling.

Don’t Niglet Citations

Citations serve as a bridge. They link your ideas to the broader world of philosophical discourse, allowing readers to trace back your sources and delve deeper if they wish. Always remember, that citations are more than a mere formality. They correspond to specific ideas, arguments, or facts you present in your paper. This means every claim, idea, or quote you borrow from a philosopher needs to be clearly linked to its source. In this way, you will be sure that your work will be free of plagiarism .

Check Formatting Guidelines.

It’s also crucial to maintain consistency in your citation style. Whether you use APA, MLA, or Chicago, stick to one style throughout your paper.

Revise and Proofread

Once you finish your masterpiece, it is time to  edit and proofread the research paper . We recommend you put your work aside for a few days to have a fresh perspective when start editing it.

How to Select the Best Philosophy Essay Topic?

First of all, we recommend deciding on a direction that interests you more. It can be a theoretical aspect, applicative use of philosophy or even the integration of this science with others – for example, ontology or metaphysics. After all, it is essential to reflect your thoughts correctly in writing for any direction. You will need to use writing tools for students to show your judgments accurately in the essay. Sometimes this can be a difficult task when the authors of the papers get into a so-called flow state.

Secondly, choosing a good topic that can be compared with the opinions of already-known thinkers is necessary for a deeper justification of your point of view. To do this, use the appropriate essay quotation format to make your paper easy to read. After all, while we are not recognized philosophers, proving our claims will be helpful to get the highest score.

If you still need to get philosophy essay ideas, continue reading this article. Here you will find 70 interesting topics that you can use as a topic for your essay or get inspired to create your own.

Easy Philosophy Paper Topics

Often we want to avoid reinventing the wheel. We are interested in writing an exciting but easy essay. So, if you were looking for simple philosophical essay topics, here is the list of the top 10 topics in philosophy for your paper:

  • Human Responsibilities in Different World Religions: Why are They Distinct?
  • Good and Evil: Do They Have Anything in Common? Will They Be Able to Insulate One without the Other?
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of a Hedonistic Approach to Life
  • Life after Death: Should We Endure the Circumstances of the X-axis for a Better Future on the Y-axis?
  • Why Ancient People Asked Themselves the Same Questions as We Do: Isn’t Humanity Progressing?
  • Do We Fulfill Our Moral Obligation to Parents by Helping Children?
  • Three Features: Each from an Animal and an Angel. What is the Nature of Man?
  • Is Genetic Engineering Ethical with Respect to the Laws of Nature?
  • How Society Can Influence the Personal Choice of the Sense of Life for Each of Us
  • Self-Determination of a Person & the Formation of our Microuniverse

Argumentative Philosophy Essay Topics

If you think more analytically, use it to your advantage. The argumentative type of philosophy essay is an unusual and exciting option for such papers since it requires strong thesis statement points. If you want to write exactly this sort of essay, these essay topics ideas will come in handy to decide on the topic of your work:

  • Peaceful Protests/Desperate Battle: a Critical Analysis of the Philosophy of Resistance
  • The Borderland Situation and Absurdity: Analytical Review.
  • Explanation of the Path of any Subject to the Point of No Return. A Critical Analysis of “The Myth of Sisyphus” 1942.
  • The Paradox of Absurdity and How to Find a Way Out of It: Follow the Rules or Set Yours
  • Comparative Analysis of Forms of Globalization from the Point of View of Philosophy
  • E. Leroy, P. Teilhard de Shader and Volodymyr Vernandskyi: Together About the Noosphere, Separately About its Functioning.
  • Analysis of the Origins of the First Thinkers from the Point of View of Metaphysics.
  • The Legal Aspect of Organ Cloning and Entire Human Cloning. Does it Make a Difference?
  • Are People Obliged to Always Tell the Truth and Nothing But the Truth?
  • Is Experience Acquired through Lived Years or Situations? Explanation of Each of the Parties.

Plato Essay Topics

Plato and Aristotle were the founders of philosophy in their classical sense. That is why writing an essay that will outline or refute Plato’s reasoning is a surefire option to impress your teacher and stand out from the rest of the group. If you still don’t know what to write about, below are the topics in the philosophy type of paper:

  • Understanding a Being as a Multiplicity of Organic Elements According to Plato’s Postulates.
  • Reflection of the Philosophy of Truth As an Idea: Plato’s Teaching
  • Plato’s way of Familiarizing themself with the Truth through Memories
  • Is It Possible to Trace the Influence of Socrates on Plato’s Philosophy: a Detailed Analysis
  • Truth Exists, but It does not Exist until Being Developed – the Main Contradiction of Plato’s System of Philosophy Understanding
  • “Phaedo”: Philosophy is the Science of Death.
  • Plato’s Dialectic: Philosophy is the Cornice that Crowns All Our Knowledge
  • Platonic Vision of Four Types of Dialectics as Four Modes of the Soul Activity
  • A Move Against Democracy from the Platonic Postulates of Understanding the State and Society According to Personal Philosophy
  • Plato and the “Ladder of Love” in the “Banquet”: Beautiful Bodies, Souls, Tempers and Sciences.


Worldview Essay Topics

Worldview and philosophy are similar concepts; they are rooted in the history of the human race. That is why this type of essay is interesting for both writing and reading. Choose your worldview essay topic from the options below to create your perfect piece of writing:

  • Three-Aspect Structure of Worldview: Elements, Levels, Main Subsystems
  • Mythological and Religious Types of Worldview: What do They Have in Common?
  • Worldview as an Individual Prism of Multilevel Interaction Between Man and the World
  • The Influence of Previous Generations on Modern Prejudices of our Outlook
  • Ideological Form of Globalization. How does Social Media Affect It?
  • The Noosphere as a Part of Countering Global Warming
  • Modern Beauty Standards and the Bodily Phenomenon of Existence: What is the Connection between Them?
  • Human Rights. Philosophy and Ethics
  • Religious Beliefs as a Form of Philosophy Existence
  • A Complex and Fragmented Approach to Studying the Worldview of Different Nations

Transcendentalism Essay Topics

Transcendentalism, as a new stage in the formation of philosophy, played a key role in its modern appearance. If you are more inclined towards more modernist lines of philosophy, these topics will suit you perfectly:

  • Classical German Philosophy. Rational and Intelligent Thinking
  • Subjectively Realistic Description of the Environment According to Categories of Philosophy
  • The Influence of Transcendentalism on the Ongoing Development of Philosophy Accordingly to the Categories of Multiplicity and Necessity
  • 10 Categories Denoting Deep Connections in being Relative to Transcendentalism: What Unites and Distinguishes Them
  • Scientific Contemplation as a Mental Category through the Prism of the 20s Years of the 20th Century
  • Life at the Intersection of the Past and the Future: Influence on Currents of American Transcendentalism Philosophy
  • Modes of Perception of Time & Time as Duration: New ideas of Transcendentalists or Paraphrasing of Hegel’s Postulates?
  • Ontological Doctrines and their Essential Characteristics: Henry David Thoreau
  • Concepts of Understanding Space and their Qualitative Changes Relative to New Views on Philosophy
  • Nature for Self-Sufficiency as the Main Myth of Philosophy Currents at the Beginning of the 20th Century

Practical Philosophy Essay Topics

The theory is great. However, any science’s practical and applied meaning is interesting for each of us. If you are interested in delving into the use of philosophy in modern society, these topics will not leave you indifferent:

  • Everyday/Life Level of Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Principles. What does It Mean to be Guided by a Certain Life Principle?
  • Approach of Philosophy to the Life of Tibetan Monks – does It Correlate with Reality?
  • Prejudice against Residents of Third World Countries: Reasons for Contempt for Their Mentality and Lifestyle
  • Unpreparedness of College Teachers for Changes in the Education System: What are They Afraid of?
  • Truth as the Last Instance of Communication with People. Is It Always Necessary?
  • The Philosophy of Excessive Consumption in the USA. What Basis does it Have?
  • Does the Concept of One’s Opinion Exist in the Era of Oversaturation of Information?
  • The use of Ancient Greek Postulates in Philosophy Today – is the Appeal to Classical Canons Still Relevant?
  • The Concept of Ethical and Moral Principles in the Era of Excessive Permissiveness.

Enlightenment Essay Topics

Enlightenment played a huge role in all sciences and spheres of human life. It’s a mind-blowing theme to write about. So, if you were looking for some ideas for your Enlightenment essay topic, we’ve prepared the best ones for you:

  • Does the Urge to Study and Develop the Beautiful in Man Still Influence Modern Philosophy?
  • Empiricism and Rationalism: Julien Aufre de Lametre’s Attempt to Unite Them
  • The Concept of Atheistic Speech of Enlightenment: Religious Dogmatics Debunktion by Voltaire
  • Voltaire: Ignorance, Fanaticism, Delusion and Lies Are Cultivated by Christianity
  • The State as a Level of Inequality between the Rich and the Poor, According to Rousseau’s Views.
  • The Immense Book of Nature as an Object of Knowledge According to Denis Diderot
  • The Structure of Existence through Its Concepts: Elements, Substratum, Substance, Objective Reality beyond Human Consciousness and the Condition of Multiplicity.
  • Concepts of Understanding Space and Time in Enlightenment Philosophy
  • “Molecular Motion” by Paul Holbach: What is It?
  • Social Life Based on the Principles of Reason and Justice – “About Reason” Andrian Helvetius

Let Your Philosophy Paper Shine

Good philosophy research paper writing requires some craft and care. Edit your work until it feels right, and make sure you are confident about your claims. If this science is just not your thing, or you struggle to understand it and doing assignments is sheer torture for you, then order a philosophical work crafted by real professionals! The best way to do your assignment is to leave it to experts and forget about your problems.

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Philosophy research and writing: sample papers.

  • Reference Texts
  • Sample Papers
  • Writing Guides

Examples of Philosophical Writing

One of the most difficult things about writing philosophy papers as a new undergraduate is figuring out what a philosophy paper is supposed to look like! For many students here at Cal, a lower division philosophy class is the first experience they have with philosophical writing so when asked to write a paper it can be difficult to figure out exactly what a good paper would be. Below are a few examples of the kinds of papers you might be asked to write in a philosophy class here at Cal as well as the papers written by professional philosophers to which the sample papers are a response.

Precis Sample Paper

  • "War and Peace in Islam" by Bassam Tibi In this paper, Bassam Tibi explores the Islamic position on war and peace as understood through the Quran and its interpretations in Islamic history.
  • Max Deleon's Precis of Tibi on war and peace in Islam In this sample paper, Max Deleon, a former tutor at the university of Vermont gives a summary of an argument made by Bassam Tibi in his paper "War and Peace in Islam"

Critical Response to a Philosopher's Position

  • "In Defense of Mereological Universalism" by Michael C. Rea In this paper, Michael Rea defends the position in ontology known as mereological universalism which he defines as that position which holds that "for any set S of disjoint objects, there is an object that the members of S compose."
  • Max Deleon's critical response to Michael Rea on Mereological Universalism In lower division philosophy courses here at Cal, the most common type of paper that you will write will be one in which you are asked to respond to some given philosopher's position by uncovering some difficulty in that position. In this paper, Max Deleon critically examines Michael Rae's paper "In Defense of Mereological Universalism"

Exposition and Amending of Existing Philosopher's Position

  • "Against Moral Rationalism, Philippa Foot" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy The section "Against moral Rationalism" in the article "Philippa Foot" from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explores Foot's positions on moral motivation which Max Deleon deals with in the paper below.
  • Max Deleon's exposition and emendation of "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" In this paper Max Deleon looks at Philippa Foot's argument from "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives," raises a few possible objections, and proposes emendations to Foot's position to respond to those objections.
  • "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" by Philippa Foot One of the most influential paper in 20th century philosophy, Philippa Foot's "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Impreatives" tackles to dominant Kantian conception of the nature of morality and offers an alternative understanding of the nature of morality.
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List of 200+ Philosophy Essay Topics and Questions For Students

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Philosophy Essay Topics

While the majority of university students may assume that choosing a philosophy essay topic is easy, it does not work well in practice. Depending on what philosophy school you would like to choose, you should think of a list that must be brainstormed. Therefore, our philosophy essay topics below are meant to keep you inspired and help you see practical examples that can serve as a starting point. You will also learn how to write a philosophy essay and how to tell a good topic from a poor one. When you have a good idea to start with, you will already overcome the challenges of finding a good topic.

✍️ Writing Philosophy Essay: Definition & Tips

Before you start with philosophy paper topics, ensure that you know the basics of essay writing. Begin with essay structure to academic features, take time to study your grading rubric and ask our  essay service questions when something is unclear. Here is what you must consider:

  • Ensure that you envision your philosophy essay’s topic by narrowing things down.
  • Create an outline by choosing various key arguments.
  • Read various literature dealing with the things that interest you.
  • Focus on your weaknesses by looking up terms and facts.
  • Choose your research methodology: persuasive, argumentative, explanatory, etc.
  • Create a bibliography to support chosen ideas with reliable sources.

Your philosophy research paper topics structure should follow these aspects:

  • Compose a strong thesis statement.
  • Use your key arguments as the body paragraph topic sentences.
  • Add a hook sentence to your introduction part.
  • Provide evidence for each idea that is not yours.
  • Present your ideas with the help of bridging words.
  • Add counter-argument ideas if it is necessary to support your point.

Tips on Writing Philosophy Essay

  • Explain a philosophical concept.
  • Provide real-life examples to help your audience understand complex aspects.
  • Compare theories by seeking contrasts.
  • Structure your philosophical ideas from easy to complex.
  • Provide personal analysis to support each argument.

Once again, always provide due evidence if you are using any external ideas!

What are some Philosophy topics?

Some topics may deal with the nature of human existence, the things we know, the definition of concepts, and moral ethics. It is also possible to choose case study examples by turning to the works of Socrates, Plato, or more modern philosophers like John McDowell.

📙 50 Philosophy Essay Topics

We shall start with not-so-difficult philosophical ideas that will deal with the general subjects related to this challenging field of science. While Philosophy is about thinking and analysis, your research writing should not be vague or unclear. Read your chosen topics aloud, change the wording, and see whether you can support some paradigms with good sources and explanatory analysis.

  • The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence: Rights and Wrongs
  • Existentialism in the 21st Century: Relevance and Application
  • The Philosophy of Mind: Consciousness and Identity
  • Stoicism as a Way of Life: Practical Applications
  • The Impact of Nietzsche's Übermensch on Modern Society
  • The Concept of Justice in Plato’s Republic
  • Free Will vs. Determinism: The Philosophical Debate
  • The Role of Suffering in Human Development According to Buddhism
  • The Ethics of Genetic Engineering: Playing God or Advancing Humanity?
  • The Influence of Social Media on Personal Identity
  • The Philosophy of Language: Meaning and Interpretation
  • Environmental Ethics: Responsibilities to Nature and Future Generations
  • The Problem of Evil: Philosophical and Theological Perspectives
  • The Concept of Happiness in Aristotelian Ethics
  • Feminist Philosophy: Theories and Implications
  • The Intersection of Philosophy and Science: Conflicts and Complementarities
  • The Philosophy of Education: Purpose and Approach
  • The Concept of Liberty in Political Philosophy
  • The Ethics of Care: A Challenge to Traditional Moral Theories
  • The Philosophy of Art: Aesthetics and Meaning
  • The Notion of Self in Eastern and Western Philosophies
  • The Ethics of Animal Rights and Welfare
  • The Philosophy of Religion: Faith vs. Reason
  • The Impact of Technology on Society: A Philosophical Inquiry
  • The Concept of Duty in Kantian Ethics
  • The Philosophy of History: Patterns, Progress, and Purpose
  • The Role of Intuition in Philosophical Thought
  • The Ethics of Euthanasia: Autonomy and Morality
  • The Philosophy of Space and Time: Understanding the Universe
  • The Notion of Justice in Rawls vs. Nozick
  • The Philosophy of Friendship: Aristotle’s View and Modern Perspectives
  • The Concept of Beauty: Subjective vs. Objective Standards
  • The Ethics of Globalization: Economic Justice and Human Rights
  • The Influence of Hegel’s Dialectics on Contemporary Thought
  • The Philosophy of Sport: Fair Play, Competition, and Virtue
  • The Notion of Truth in Postmodern Philosophy
  • The Ethics of Immigration: Rights, Policies, and Morality
  • The Role of Logic in Philosophical Argumentation
  • The Philosophy of Love: From Plato to Modern Times
  • The Ethics of Surveillance: Privacy vs. Security
  • The Concept of Power in Foucault’s Philosophy
  • The Philosophy of Leisure: The Value of Free Time in a Productive Society
  • The Ethics of Consumption: Materialism and Sustainability
  • The Notion of Community in Communitarian Philosophy
  • The Philosophy of Language and Technology: Communication in the Digital Age
  • The Ethics of War: Just War Theory and Pacifism
  • The Concept of Alienation in Marxist Philosophy
  • The Philosophy of Humor: What Makes Something Funny?
  • The Ethics of Cloning: Human Dignity and Reproductive Technology
  • The Philosophy of Aging: Wisdom, Ethics, and the Value of Life

Remember that you can always narrow things down to what fits your essay!

📝Easy Philosophy Paper Topics

These easy Philosophy essay topics should provide you with a basic idea before we proceed with more complex ideas:

  • The Concept of Happiness: What Makes Life Fulfilling?
  • Free Will vs. Determinism: Do We Truly Have Choices?
  • The Ethics of Animal Rights: Should Animals Have the Same Rights as Humans?
  • The Impact of Technology on Society: A Philosophical Perspective
  • The Philosophy of Friendship: What Makes a Good Friend?
  • Introduction to Stoicism: How Can Stoic Principles Improve Our Lives?
  • The Role of Education in Shaping Society
  • Personal Identity: What Makes You, You?
  • The Ethics of Euthanasia: Right to Die or Duty to Live?
  • The Philosophy Behind Environmental Conservation
  • Happiness vs. Pleasure: Understanding the Difference
  • The Importance of Ethics in Business
  • Understanding Empathy: Its Importance and Impact
  • The Concept of Justice in Modern Society
  • Mindfulness and Philosophy: Living in the Moment
  • The Influence of Media on Public Opinion: A Philosophical Analysis
  • The Philosophy of Art: What is Artistic Beauty?
  • The Concept of Duty: Kantian Ethics Explained
  • Philosophical Perspectives on Poverty and Wealth
  • The Role of Intuition in Decision Making

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☝️ Argumentative Philosophy Essay Topics

They are meant for clear arguments where you make a stand with an aim to defend what you believe in or bring up arguments to discuss things with your fellow students. Here are some ideas:

  • Is Morality Relative or Absolute?
  • Can Free Will Exist in a Deterministic Universe?
  • Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat to Human Existence?
  • Do Humans Have an Obligation to Preserve the Natural Environment?
  • Is the Concept of the Social Contract Relevant in Today's Society?
  • Should Genetic Engineering Be Subject to Ethical Limitations?
  • Is Democracy the Best Form of Government?
  • Can War Ever Be Justified Ethically?
  • Is Capital Punishment Morally Defensible?
  • Does the Existence of Evil Disprove the Existence of God?
  • Is Euthanasia Ethically Permissible?
  • Should Wealth Redistribution Be a Central Aim of Society?
  • Is Education a Right or a Privilege?
  • Does Technology Enhance or Diminish Human Interaction?
  • Is Animal Testing Justifiable?
  • Can Objective Truth Exist in Morality?
  • Is the Pursuit of Happiness a Worthwhile Life Goal?
  • Should Privacy Be Sacrificed for Security?
  • Is Censorship Ever Justifiable in a Free Society?
  • Does Society Have a Duty to Provide Healthcare to All Its Citizens?

📚 Practical Philosophical Topics For Essays

If you can apply a school of philosophy or some subject in practice, take a look at these Philosophy essay ideas:

  • The Ethics of Consumerism: Philosophical Perspectives on Consumption and Sustainability
  • Philosophy in the Workplace: Ethical Leadership and Corporate Responsibility
  • The Role of Philosophy in Education: Teaching Critical Thinking and Ethical Reasoning
  • Mental Health and Well-being: A Philosophical Examination of Happiness and Fulfillment
  • Digital Life: The Impact of Social Media on Identity and Relationships
  • Environmental Ethics: Philosophical Approaches to Climate Change and Conservation
  • The Philosophy of Science: Understanding the Limits and Possibilities of Scientific Knowledge
  • Philosophical Perspectives on Gender Equality and Feminism
  • The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Future of AI
  • Philosophy of Religion: Faith, Rationality, and the Meaning of Life
  • The Intersection of Philosophy and Art: Aesthetics and the Value of Art
  • Philosophical Approaches to Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding
  • The Ethics of Healthcare: Patient Rights, Access, and the Doctor-Patient Relationship
  • Philosophy and Political Activism: The Role of Ideas in Social Movements
  • The Philosophy of Language: Communication, Misunderstanding, and Meaning
  • Ethical Consumerism: The Moral Implications of Our Purchasing Choices
  • The Ethics of Technology: Privacy, Surveillance, and Freedom in the Digital Age
  • Philosophy of Education: The Purpose and Value of Learning
  • The Ethics of Immigration: Rights, Policies, and Global Responsibility
  • Philosophical Perspectives on Aging and Mortality

🌎 Worldview Essay Topics

This section is dedicated to those subjects that reflect how a person sees the world. It brings up philosophy essay questions that sum up what a person beliefs in. For example:

  • The Influence of Culture on Moral Values: A Comparative Analysis
  • Existentialism and the Search for Meaning in the Modern World
  • The Impact of Religion on Worldviews: A Global Perspective
  • Humanism vs. Spiritualism: Contrasting Life Philosophies
  • The Role of Science in Shaping Contemporary Worldviews
  • Eastern vs. Western Philosophies: Diverse Paths to Understanding Reality
  • The Concept of Karma in Different Cultural Contexts
  • Materialism and Consumer Society: Philosophical Critiques
  • The Philosophy of Time: How Different Cultures Understand Time
  • Environmental Worldviews: From Anthropocentrism to Eco-centrism
  • The Digital Age and Its Impact on Human Perception and Interaction
  • Fate vs. Free Will: Determining the Course of Our Lives
  • The Notion of the Self in Philosophy and Psychology
  • Globalization and Its Effects on Cultural Identity and Worldviews
  • Postmodernism: Challenging Traditional Narratives and Beliefs
  • The Concept of Utopia: Visions of a Perfect Society
  • Ethical Relativism: Understanding Morality in a Pluralistic World
  • The Intersection of Art and Philosophy in Shaping Worldviews
  • Philosophical Perspectives on Death and the Afterlife
  • Technology and Transhumanism: Redefining Human Nature and Future

📖 Plato Essay Topics

It is hard to find another personality that would be as important for the field of Philosophy as Plato. Here are several philosophy topics for essays that deal with Plato’s beliefs and the timeless heritage. For example:

  • The Theory of Forms: Understanding Plato's Concept of Reality
  • Plato's Allegory of the Cave: Interpretations and Implications
  • Justice in Plato's Republic: An Analysis of His Ideal State
  • Plato and Democracy: Critique and Perspectives
  • The Role of the Philosopher-King in Plato's Ideal Society
  • Plato's Concept of the Soul: Tripartite Structure and Its Significance
  • Education in Plato's Republic: Methods and Philosophical Foundations
  • Plato's Views on Art and Imitation: An Examination of the Ion and the Republic
  • The Significance of Plato's Academy in the Development of Western Philosophy
  • Comparative Analysis: Plato and Aristotle on Virtue and Happiness
  • Plato's Symposium: Love, Beauty, and the Path to the Divine
  • The Influence of Socratic Method on Plato's Dialogues
  • Plato's Critique of Sophistry and Its Relevance Today
  • The Concept of Eudaimonia in Plato's Ethical Philosophy
  • Plato's Timaeus: Cosmology and the Nature of the Physical World
  • Plato and the Theory of Knowledge: Justified True Belief
  • The Role of Myth in Plato's Philosophy: From the Gorgias to the Phaedrus
  • Plato's Political Philosophy: The Challenges of Realizing the Ideal State
  • The Immortality of the Soul in Plato's Phaedo: Arguments and Critiques
  • Plato's Influence on Christian Thought and Theology

💡 Enlightenment Essay Topics

This section explores interesting topics that relate to the period of Enlightenment. Here is the list to consider:

  • The Role of Reason in the Enlightenment: A New Approach to Knowledge
  • Voltaire and the Fight for Religious Tolerance
  • The Impact of the Enlightenment on Modern Democratic Thought
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Concept of the Social Contract
  • Enlightenment Critiques of Monarchy and the Path to Republicanism
  • The Influence of Enlightenment Thought on the French Revolution
  • Comparative Analysis of the Scottish and French Enlightenment
  • Women of the Enlightenment: Contributions and Challenges
  • The Enlightenment and Its Role in the Development of Modern Science
  • Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Freedom
  • The Enlightenment and the Arts: A New Aesthetic for a New Time
  • Deism and the Enlightenment: Rethinking the Divine
  • The Legacy of the Enlightenment in Contemporary Education
  • Enlightenment Philosophers on Human Rights and Equality
  • Economic Thought in the Enlightenment: The Beginnings of Modern Economics
  • The Enlightenment’s Influence on Modern Legal Systems
  • Critiques of the Enlightenment: Romanticism and Counter-Enlightenment Thoughts
  • The Spread of Enlightenment Ideas Through Europe and Beyond
  • The Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Political Ideologies
  • Philosophical Debates on Morality and Ethics During the Enlightenment

📜 Transcendentalism Essay Topics

In simple terms, Transcendentalism is a philosophy that came to be in the 19th century, aiming for self-sufficiency. The main belief states that people are originally good but are corrupted by society and the wrong teaching or negative examples. It is one of the most varied branches of philosophy as can be seen from the topics below:

  • The Core Principles of Transcendentalism: An Introduction
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Philosophy of Self-Reliance
  • Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Living in Harmony with Nature
  • Transcendentalism and Its Influence on American Literature
  • Margaret Fuller: A Transcendentalist Feminist Perspective
  • The Role of Nature in Transcendentalist Thought
  • Transcendentalism and Its Critique of Materialism
  • The Social and Political Activism of Transcendentalists
  • Transcendentalism: A Predecessor to Environmental and Ecological Movements
  • The Concept of Individualism in Transcendentalist Writings
  • Transcendentalism and Education: The Legacy of Bronson Alcott
  • The Influence of Eastern Philosophies on Transcendentalist Thought
  • Transcendentalism in Contemporary Society: Relevance and Reflections
  • The Relationship Between Transcendentalism and Romanticism
  • Transcendentalist Views on Religion and Spirituality
  • The Impact of Transcendentalism on Civil Disobedience and Social Change
  • Transcendentalism and the Arts: Exploring Aesthetic Expressions
  • Critiques of Transcendentalism: Limitations and Counterarguments
  • The Legacy of Transcendentalism in Modern American Culture
  • Exploring the Concept of the Over-Soul in Transcendentalist Literature

❓ Philosophy Essay Questions

When you choose a good Philosophy essay topic, always ask yourself a question. Take a look at how it has been done below:

  • What is the nature of reality, and how can we truly know anything about it?
  • Is free will an illusion, and are our choices predetermined by external factors?
  • Can moral judgments be objective, or are they entirely subjective?
  • What is the role of consciousness in defining personal identity?
  • How do language and thought influence our perception of the world?
  • Is it possible to achieve true happiness, and what would it entail?
  • What is justice, and how can a society ensure its fair distribution?
  • Can artificial intelligence ever attain consciousness or moral reasoning?
  • What does it mean to live a good life, and how should individuals strive to achieve it?
  • How should we balance individual freedom with social responsibility?
  • Is there a universal standard for beauty, or is beauty entirely subjective?
  • What is the significance of death in giving meaning to life?
  • How do power dynamics shape ethical considerations and social structures?
  • Can science and religion coexist, or are they fundamentally incompatible?
  • What is the ethical responsibility of humans towards the environment and non-human life?
  • How does the concept of the self evolve in the digital age?
  • Is there an ethical obligation to pursue truth, even at the expense of personal happiness?
  • What role does suffering play in personal growth and the development of character?
  • How can societies best balance tradition and innovation in shaping the future?
  • What are the ethical implications of genetic engineering and biotechnology on future generations?

What is a good topic for a philosophy paper?

One of the most popular topics in Philosophy today is whether people are born as good beings or we already come to this world with all the negative traits. While it is popular, you can narrow things down by focusing on criminals, youth gangs, or volunteers (as an example of the good ones).

How to Find Excellent Philosophy Essay Topics?

When you have a plethora of philosophy ideas, it is easy to get lost, which is why you should follow these simple Philosophy topic choice tips:

  • Find something that truly inspires you. If your topic does not motivate you, it will always show.
  • Choose a certain school of philosophy as your methodology.
  • Read on various philosophers and examine their famous works.
  • Narrow things down and change the wording.
  • Research similar works on the topic.

When you have already chosen something, read it aloud and try to think about keywords by writing them down in a list. Once done, connect your essay topic with the thesis statement.

Was this helpful?

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Written by David Kidwell

David is one of those experienced content creators from the United Kingdom who has a high interest in social issues, culture, and entrepreneurship. He always says that reading, blogging, and staying aware of what happens in the world is what makes a person responsible. He likes to learn and share what he knows by making things inspiring and creative enough even for those students who dislike reading.

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UPSC Essays Simplified: Structure and Flow of a good essay– the third step

How to build a 'structure and flow' in a good essay our expert takes you through the third stage of writing an essay in upsc essentials' new series. don't miss the essay exercise towards the end of the article..

good philosophical essay

How to write essays for UPSC Civil Services Exams?   This is one of the most popular questions among aspirants. In UPSC Essentials’ special series  UPSC Essays Simplified , we take you through various steps of writing a good essay. While there is no set formula or fixed criteria prescribed,  Manas Srivastava  talks to  Ravi Kapoor , our expert, in this new series who guides the aspirants with a simplified framework on how to write a good essay. Don’t miss  ‘The Essay Exercise’  towards the end of the article.

Ravi Kapoor focuses on the following steps of pre-writing and writing stages which will help aspirants to write a ‘good essay’.

good philosophical essay


Today, we will focus on Step 3. 

About our Expert:   Ravi Kapoor IRS (R) , has now ditched his coveted rank of deputy commissioner and has offered free quality mentorship to UPSC aspirants, drawing upon his ten years of experience to create customised and productive curriculum. Through a free mentorship programme, he integrates tailored educational materials, psychological principles, visual learning techniques, and a strong emphasis on mental well-being into his teaching skills granting aspirants a chance to learn from his expertise.

How to have a ‘Structure and Flow’ in a good essay?

Everyone knows that an essay should be broken down into an introduction, body and conclusion. But what is written inside these 3 components and HOW it is written makes the difference between an essay fetching average or excellent scores.

Structuring and flow refer to the organisation of the essay and your ideas therein.

Festive offer

A good structure is a way of organising information that fits well with the essay topic and the ideas you wish to present in your arguments such that the reader can make sense of the entire write-up without much effort.

Good flow refers to how your arguments and counterarguments connect from one to another such that the reader finds it logically connected and easy to comprehend.

An essay without these elements will appear to be disorganized, jargoned, hard to comprehend and overall, complicated.

Contrary to popular belief, flow and structure are not subjective writing skills that are inborn in good writers but can be learned and improved upon. What follows is a series of structuring techniques that will help you choose the best one for any essay topic you may encounter.

What are different types of structures? 

1. 2 side face-off:.

This is the oldest trick in the book. While writing the body of the essay, you divide it into arguments and counterarguments. In other words, you compare one side of the debate with the other.

For example:

“Thinking is like a game; it does not begin unless there is an opposite team”

The body of the essay can be divided into 2 parts- one agreeing with the statement and one disagreeing with it as follows:

Thinking is reciprocal as thought builds on other thoughts. The Socratic method, championed by Socrates, is a testament to this idea. Socrates would go around Athens spreading knowledge by asking questions and inciting dialogue which would lead the conversationist to the point of realization about something new and profound.

Similarly, when Einstein said he was standing on the shoulders of giants, he meant that his theory of relativity was built using many ideas developed by mathematicians and physicists who came before him.

The reciprocal nature of thought helps to improve it by allowing dissent and counterarguments much like a game of chess. An example is the Case study pioneered by Harvard Business School wherein one case is debated upon in detail considering various strategies before arriving at the optimal one.

While dissent and opposition can lead to many a good idea, there are more ways for thought to develop into ideas within human consciousness. Human cognition is too complex to be restricted to one mode of thinking. A Case in point is intuitive or creative thinking that can arise spontaneously without the interlocking of two human intelligences.

For instance, creative geniuses often hit upon their best ideas out of the blue in ‘Eureka’ moments that seem to arise from within the subconscious mind without the presence of an opponent.

Another example is ‘thought-experiments’ used by philosophers that are designed to be introspective exercises that one engages with, with oneself. Thought experiments are indispensable tools for philosophers and physicists to offer insight into a profound problem of logic and metaphysics.

2.Dimensional analysis:

It has become fashionable to break the essay topic into various dimensions such as Social, Cultural, Historical, Economic etc. But this is not a one-size-fits-all method and may or may not work with every essay topic.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in the school…”

While this topic can be written about based on various dimensions such as economic, historical, social etc, it is not necessarily the best structure for it.

Instead, a better way to present the information in this essay topic would have a mix of chronology and analysis in the following way-

We are blank slates when we are born onto which society and culture leave their imprint. Through childhood and adolescence, the education system seeks to put us through a treadmill of learning, hoping for a fully functional human to emerge at the end. Sadly, the world that awaits a young adult after school is often very different from what the education system has imparted.

Memorization, exams, grades and NCERT books amount to nothing in a world driven by start-ups, ChatGPT and Social Media influencers…. Please note that the dimensions such as social, cultural and historical factors can also be mentioned in the body of the essay as supporting content ideas.

In most essay topics, these dimensions are best used to describe the reasons and impact of an issue or debate instead of as just a structure.

3. Timeline and Chronology

Some essay topics are uniquely suited for a chronological structure wherein you take the reader through a historical journey or evolution such as :

“History is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man”

This topic is about the ancient debate between rationality and idealism. To write well about it, you would have to trace the through major historical intellectual movements such as the Scientific Revolution, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, etc. While doing so, you could mention how each stage was relevant for rational thinking versus idealism with relevant examples.

While you do so chronologically, remember to also present a balanced approach in your arguments- On every stage, you can mention how rational thinking and idealism have been in a tight relationship, but both have been an integral part of human consciousness representing creativity and logic. You may also mention how this to and fro has enriched human civilisation and led to the development of science and art.

4. Anecdotes and stories

Many students like to start their essays with an anecdote- a personal story or an imaginary one about characters highlighting the debate presented in the essay topic. While this is not a bad strategy, it requires a fair amount of creative writing ability to pull off properly. It is also important to mention that anecdotes are not the most suitable vehicle to comprehensively deal with the essay topic as not all arguments can easily fit into a personal story.

An example of a good use of anecdotal structure is:

“Not all who wander are lost”

About 2000 years ago, a wandering prince changed the world by questioning the most profound and radical assumptions about human existence. Prince Siddhartha was bathed in luxury and wanted for nothing. But when we saw the naked reality of the world and all its suffering, he could not silence his mind to the questions that we take for granted- why is there suffering and death? If suffering is inevitable then what is the point of life? Is there peace to be found or are we doomed to suffer in this life?

He wandered for years in search of answers, as lost as a soul can be. But in the end, it was his wandering that changed the world forever. When he became the Buddha, he not only found himself but saved millions of others from being lost themselves….

Anecdotes can make for good hooks or introductions to an essay but may not serve well to cover the entire body of the essay.

The Essay Exercise



1.  Use Anecdotes or historical examples in intro

2.  2 side face-offs in body of the essay

3. Balanced conclusion

Start with comparing USSR and USA in the cold war. Preparation for nuclear war and hint at how being pre-emptive is strategic but not always a good thing.


Conclude by saying that we must strike a balance between preparedness and being spontaneous:

Important points to note: 

  • You can choose which type of structure to use- there is no single best choice.
  • You may use more than 1 type of structure.
  • You may use structures for introduction, body and conclusion.

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Manas Srivastava is currently working as Deputy Copy Editor with The Indian Express (digital) and majorly writes for UPSC-related projects leading a unique initiative known as UPSC Essentials. In the past, Manas has represented India at the G-20 Youth Summit in Mexico. He is a former member of the Youth Council, GOI. A two-time topper/gold medallist in History (both in graduation and post-graduation) from Delhi University, he has mentored and taught UPSC aspirants for more than four years. His diverse role in The Indian Express consists of writing, editing, anchoring/ hosting, interviewing experts, and curating and simplifying news for the benefit of students. He hosts the YouTube talk show called ‘Art and Culture with Devdutt Pattanaik’ and a LIVE series on Instagram and YouTube called ‘You Ask We Answer’.His talks on ‘How to read a newspaper’ focus on newspaper reading as an essential habit for students. His articles and videos aim at finding solutions to the general queries of students and hence he believes in being students' editor, preparing them not just for any exam but helping them to become informed citizens. This is where he makes his teaching profession meet journalism. He is also currently working on a monthly magazine for UPSC Aspirants. He is a recipient of the Dip Chand Memorial Award, the Lala Ram Mohan Prize and Prof. Papiya Ghosh Memorial Prize for academic excellence. He was also awarded the University’s Post-Graduate Scholarship for pursuing M.A. in History where he chose to specialise in Ancient India due to his keen interest in Archaeology. He has also successfully completed a Certificate course on Women’s Studies by the Women’s Studies Development Centre, DU. As a part of N.S.S in the past, Manas has worked with national and international organisations and has shown keen interest and active participation in Social Service. He has led and been a part of projects involving areas such as gender sensitisation, persons with disability, helping slum dwellers, environment, adopting our heritage programme. He has also presented a case study on ‘Psychological stress among students’ at ICSQCC- Sri Lanka. As a compere for seminars and other events he likes to keep his orating hobby alive. His interests also lie in International Relations, Governance, Social issues, Essays and poetry. ... Read More

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  1. PDF A Brief Guide to Writing the Philosophy Paper

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    Three Stages of Writing 1. Early Stages The early stages of writing a philosophy paper include everything you do before you sit down and write your first draft. These early stages will involve writing, but you won't yet be trying to write a complete paper.You should instead be taking notes on the readings, sketching out your ideas, trying to explain the main argument you want to advance, and ...

  15. PDF How to Write a Philosophy Paper

    How to Write a Philosophy Paper. Shelly Kagan Department of Philosophy. 1. Every paper you write for me will be based on the same basic assignment: state a thesis and defend it. That is, you must stake out a position that you take to be correct, and then you must offer arguments for that view, consider objections, and reply to those objections.

  16. Tackling the Philosophy Essay Guide

    Philosophy Faculty Guidelines for Discussion Sessions. phil-essay-guide.pdf. Dr Sophia Dandelet awarded a 12-month Mind Association Research Fellowship. 10th Jun 2024. Lia Nordmann has received Newnham's Wood-Whistler Scholarship 2023-24 for her paper "Disability and Teleology: Aristotelian Problems in Korsgaard's Kantian Animal Ethics.

  17. Writing A Philosophy Paper

    Simon Fraser University. Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific "do"s and "don't"s.

  18. Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper

    A good philosophy paper is modest and makes a small point; but it makes that point clearly and straightforwardly, and it offers good reasons in support of it; People very often attempt to accomplish too much in a philosophy paper. The usual result of this is a paper that's hard to read, and which is full of inadequately defended and poorly ...

  19. How to Write a Philosophy Paper [Outline, Topics + Writing Tips]

    2.2 Body Sections. 2.3 Writing a Philosophy Paper Conclusion. 3 Template for a Philosophy Essay Structure. 4 How to Format a Philosophy Research Paper. 5 10 Steps to Write a Great Philosophy Paper Like a Pro. 5.1 Choose a Topic. 5.2 Read the Material and Take Notes. 5.3 Think about Your Thesis. 5.4 Make an Outline.

  20. Library Guides: Philosophy Research and Writing: Sample Papers

    One of the most difficult things about writing philosophy papers as a new undergraduate is figuring out what a philosophy paper is supposed to look like! For many students here at Cal, a lower division philosophy class is the first experience they have with philosophical writing so when asked to write a paper it can be difficult to figure out ...

  21. How to Write a Philosophy Paper

    Even a brilliant essay cannot get a good grade if it does not answer the question. Philosophy papers usually involve both exposition and evaluation. In the expository part of the paper, your task is to explain the view or argument under consideration. Make sure that your explanation is as explicit as possible.

  22. Top 200+ Philosophy Essay Topics and Ideas

    The Philosophy of Education: Purpose and Approach. The Concept of Liberty in Political Philosophy. The Ethics of Care: A Challenge to Traditional Moral Theories. The Philosophy of Art: Aesthetics and Meaning. The Notion of Self in Eastern and Western Philosophies. The Ethics of Animal Rights and Welfare.

  23. PDF Arts: Philosophy essay

    Good formatting of argument in standard form. It is appropriate to provide the premises given the conclusion is stated in the preceding sentence. This is a good example of a clear topic sentence which provides the main idea for this paragraph. Good summary of Gettier example with appropriate use of philosophical terms.

  24. UPSC Essays Simplified: Structure and Flow of a good essay- the third

    An essay without these elements will appear to be disorganized, jargoned, hard to comprehend and overall, complicated.. Contrary to popular belief, flow and structure are not subjective writing skills that are inborn in good writers but can be learned and improved upon. What follows is a series of structuring techniques that will help you choose the best one for any essay topic you may encounter.